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.

Sincerely trying – to find the silver lining.


All you see of her face are two beautiful eyes looking back at you. The rest of the face is covered up carefully with her dupatta. And all of her arms as well. She doesn’t wear new clothes, she doesn’t buy any jewelry or apply any make up like most twenty year olds do. She stays busy hiding her burnt and severely scarred face and arms from public prying eyes. She keeps her head down and walks fast when out on errands. Her ‘happy place’ is within the perimeters of the home she lives in now.

Gouri is employed as the domestic help in my parent’s house. My father had some initial misgivings about Gouri’s scars, he was worried that his grandkids, my children, would be scared of her disfigurement when they came to visit. I knew I was raising them differently. However, I had a conversation with them about this employment, about her scars and her life. They both agreed the scars and the disfigurement were a non issue and that didiya and dadai (grandmom and granddad) should ‘most positively’ hire her.

We went back home this summer and met Gouri for the first time, in person. Sahana gave her a spontaneous hug, maybe to show that her facial scars are no deterrent for love and affection. Ryan didn’t mention anything about the scars but behaved with her like he always behaves with any other women, shy smile and never looking up in the eye till the ice was broken and Gouridi became his winning partner in a game of Ludo every evening. Towards the end of our visit he was hanging from her arms and reveling in her love.

Her story is nothing new. She is yet another victim of domestic violence, who, unable to find any support or escape from the torture, in a moment of insanity, decided to put an end to her own life. She thought she would end it all, the pain, the degradation, the horror, the shame. Instead she gained a life of scorn, judgment and yes, shame – she left her husband and got a divorce, you see. The shame is indeed not hers, is it? Don’t answer that, that question was rhetorical. The shame belongs to those who failed her. Those who failed miserably to help her when she was flailing, trying desperately to get out of the clutches of her drunken father-in-law and abusive husband.

I will write about her life, I have her permission. She worked in Kolkata as a domestic help. A man came with a group of his friends to see a prospective bride for one of the mates. The man happened to see her, liked her and wanted to marry her right away. First Gouri’s father and elder brothers were reluctant at this match. It was too sudden they said, they were not ready. The man said he will take less dowry. That sealed the deal. I can’t judge the family. Extreme poverty, one less mouth to feed, you do the math. Her family borrowed, begged and finally married her off.

When Gouri followed her newly wed husband to his home a surprise awaited her. The man’s family was clueless about this wedding which was nothing more than a whim on the man’s part. The in-law’s disappointment knew no bounds. Families treat their sons as assets because they are wed to bring money in the form of dowry. Gouri didn’t bring much money to count. You must have figured out Gouri’s fate in her marital home by now. Let me just add a few more facts. She escaped to her neighbor’s house and saved herself from being raped by her father-in-law. She discovered that her husband has another family – wife and a son. She was beaten severely everyday when her husband turned up dead drunk. She pleaded with her father and brothers (mother and sisters don’t count and don’t have any say) to let her come home. They said “little things in life”. They said “Make peace, make it work”. They said, “God intended”. They said, “Fate.”

She was an eighteen year old young girl, trapped in a horrific marriage with no support, no chance of escape. And we say slavery is abolished? In which universe? So Gouri made a choice, she made a choice over the only thing she had some control over. Her life.

She didn’t die, of course. After 9 months of intense pain, medical intervention, antibiotics, surgery, she lived. Her father and brothers, didn’t have much to begin with, but went completely bankrupt to pay her medical expenses. ‘My brothers used to love me before, but they don’t love me anymore!’ She told me. When her brothers sit down to eat lunch, she is instructed to leave the room and sit outside till they are done so they don’t have to see her burnt face, which revolts them they say. She told me this matter-of-factly, without emotion. Her family holds grudges against her as the reason for their debts and bankruptcy. I try my best not to judge, yet at the same time, remind her she had asked for help, and didn’t get any!

Since I heard about Gouri, I wanted to make it better for her. She is twenty years old, I thought. She has her whole life ahead of her. She deserves a second chance, she deserves a decent shot at life. I wanted to raise awareness of her situation, maybe raise money if I couldn’t afford the cost of reconstructive surgery for her. Yes, I was playing God, in my mind. When I went back and talked to her about it, I discovered she has not healed emotionally. She refuses to take a simple pill for her cold, she made it clear she will not see a doctor or take another single injection as long as she lives. She is not ready for any surgery to reconstruct her face. She can’t even bear to think of it. The pain is still fresh, still immediate. She remembers too much. At least for now, she will hide her face from the world and smile inside the four walls of her home. But I can be patient. I will wait. After all, she is only twenty years old.

The silver lining in this story? Well, now she is determined to earn money. She has a goal to buy a little plot of land one day. She knows her family will not take care of her any more. She knows she is on her own. She gives money to her family when they are in dire straits, but she saves most of her money. She has a wonderful financial planner in my father. He takes pride in telling her (and me) how many fixed deposits she already has and in 5 years how much her money will multiply. She listens and smiles silently. Maybe, just maybe she sees the first light of the silver lining peeking out from behind the clouds?

Moving on.


On December 16th, 2012, a young woman boarded a public bus in New Delhi, India with friend after a late night movie show. Six people on the bus brutalized her beyond belief and threw her down the moving bus once they were finished with her. Her friend was beaten up and left to die. She clung on to life despite the odds – broken, mutilated, ravaged, brain-dead, but alive, breathing. She succumbed to her injuries a few days ago, on December 28th, 2012, after fighting desperately to cling on. Her body simply gave up.

Her fate and death stirred India into a huge protest against the indignities that women suffer and nudged the conscience of the whole world regarding the general attitude towards women, universally. Candle light vigils, marches with placards, protests against politicians and lackadaisical policies, accepting responsibilities that we all failed her, made it amply evident that people were not going to let this one go easily. This heinousness of the crime touched a raw nerve in the psyche of the nation. The fact that rape happens and goes unreported were brought to the forefront and discussed.

The bright young woman, a medical student, whose identity has been kept a secret, was given different names as movements and protests started against what she suffered – Nirbhaya (fearless one), India’s Braveheart, Amanat (treasure), Damini, Daughter of India. I know not if the woman was fearless. I am sure she was an Amanat, treasured by her parents, her family, ones who loved her. There have been no incidents cited that prove she was seeking to make a social change that night. She was a young woman, studying to become a doctor, she was full of possibilities, and she wanted a fun night out with her friend. She didn’t go out that night to become a martyr so people in India and the world could be shaken out of their complacency to do something about gender equality. She is a victim of a grievous crime, l don’t know why she is being called India’s Braveheart, but no matter.

What must have gone through her mind when this assault on her began, I wonder. Fear, first and foremost. Confusion, bewilderment, agony – ‘Why are you doing this to me? I am a human like you. You are hurting me so bad!’ Then she must have lost consciousness at some point, or at least I fervently hope she did because just the thought of the pain the men inflicted on her makes my skin crawl in horror.

Her death and the brutality done upon her opened the third eye of the nation – dare I hope? Will the women who are being subjected to rape, both marital and otherwise, and other form of indignities, garner enough strength to come forward with the tale of their woes and hope to be believed and vindicated?

And I wonder what led the six men to behave so cruelly towards another human? Was it alcohol? What did they suffer in their lives to become so dissociated with simple empathy? How much pain did they endure so they were capable of committing such unfathomable act of cruelty on another human? The men were from a slum in South Delhi, I hear. Does economics have any part to play in crimes such as these? Does education? The answer is no. Jessica Lal was murdered by the son of a minister. The wealthy kill and get away, the poor get caught – that is the only part economics play (Jessica Lal’s killer was caught, however)! And education? What is education in the true sense of the word? Does a degree from prestigious educational institutions make one truly educated enough to believe in human equality? It does not. Unfortunately, female infanticide happens in homes of doctors, professors, lawyers more than in the homes of folks without degrees from college. Aamir Khan, the renowned actor of India, did research for his reality show Satyameva Jayate and came up with the statistics that the rate of female infanticide still happening in the homes of wealthy and ‘educated’ is, in reality, much higher than the lower middle and poorer section of society. True enlightenment comes from opening one’s mind to accept, respect and value another. Rote learning doesn’t make one educated.

Enough has already been said, written, talked about women’s right. Many have voiced their opinions on hanging the rapists. I won’t go into that debate. I don’t have a solution to what will stop rapes right away. But I do think it depends on how we nurture and bring up our sons and daughters. Our actions today will determine what kind of society the next generation will create. First lesson they need to learn today is mutual respect. I still hear comments like ‘Don’t throw like a girl’ to teach a son athletic prowess or “Go wear a bangle and sit in the house’ to show a lack of courage in a male. As long as mentalities such as these exist, women will not be considered an equal to her counterpart.

What does woman’s equality mean, anyway? Men and women are different, physically and mentally. There is no denying that fact. But one needs to realize and respect that the contribution men and women make in society and in each other’s live are EQUALLY important. The roles of men being the bread winners and women staying at home are not rigid anymore, that line has been blurry for a while now. When men accept and respect that and when women start believing that their contribution in the family and their role in society are equally important, we can hope for gender equality. That is a first step – respecting another and believing in oneself.

It is a new year. January is a month of hopefulness, it starts off with new resolutions, new hopes, new beginnings. It is a month which tells us to move on from the mistakes of the past and build on the future. And we will move on. But we will not leave behind the innocent little children of Sandy Hook Elementary school. We will not leave behind the young woman who was brutally raped and beaten with a metal rod and thrown out of the bus to die on December 16th in New Delhi. They are moving on with us. We need them to remind us that enough wrong has been done in 2012 and the years before. We need to right those wrongs. Their memories won’t let us get complacent and self-absorbed. Their fate will remind us that each of us are vulnerable and unless we work towards a change, our loved ones could suffer the same fate. My hope is 2013 sees at least baby steps in the right direction – towards gender equality, towards social equality, towards a progressive mindset, towards true enlightenment, towards rehabilitation and prosperity. These words sound lofty and idealistic, but I do believe we are moving in the right direction. The Sandy Hook Elementary School killings, brutal rape of the young woman, other unreported rapes and other killings are stumbling blocks to prevent the forward march. But the uproar, determination, empathy and rage from the world that arises over incidents such as these prove that we are not going to tolerate such acts and these will not stop us from moving on – for the better.