#protectourgirls

I am a daughter of Sanatan Dharma, and I stand firm in the face of the atrocity that is child marriage and rebuke it without regret. This is not just an issue of age and maturity, but once again, of power.

The policing of women and girls’ bodies by Hindu men has been a plague to this system of belief for hundreds of years. Despite the worship of female deities who are warriors, nurturers and the like, there exists a patriarchal supposition that women and girls must be strictly policed; we are the responsibility of fathers, then husbands, then sons. A single woman on her own is a being to be despised, shunned, hated, feared or conquered. Thus, marriage is seen as the institution that can keep a woman ‘in line’. The fact of child marriages stems from poverty and misconceptions of the ‘evil’ that is female sexuality. Our Hindu ancestors married off their daughters early because they could not afford to ‘mind’ them, because ‘tradition’ dictated such, or because if they didn’t it was believed she would ‘behave bad’ (promiscuity implied).

However, this Sanatan Dharma has survived thousands of years because it has evolved, embracing and synthesizing forms of knowledge to create a system of belief and way of life that is most pleasing to God, helpful to the environment, protecting of animals, and peaceful to all humanity. This is why it is difficult for me to truly understand how ‘big, hard-back men’, versed in the laws of Dharma, understanding of the progress of the world, can sit from their thrones of ignorance and declare that child marriages are ‘okay’, because ‘we doing it long time…we forefathers used to do it’. Many of our forefathers used to drink puncheon and beat up their wives too, does that mean alcoholism and domestic violence are okay and should be continued?

It just goes to show how much it worries these men that women and girls are no longer filling the roles this patriarchal system has been pinning onto them. They sit on aasans and preach that our girls, we, should be like Sita…docile, obedient, domesticated. They want us to sit quietly while they police our bodies and our minds, forcing us into roles of subservience. So when we began to emerge in the last fifty years: teachers, doctors, lawyers, engineers… we showed them that we are not Sitas, but Kalis. Strong, independent, passionate, and powerful. We began to threaten their patriarchy: we use our bodies as we see fit, we practice an independence that they cannot accept, we are doing everything that removes us from their realms of power.

I see this support for an archaic abuse of power the last straw these old men are desperately grasping at to prove their authority. They need to feel empowered by policing women and girls. This is not just an issue of age and maturity, this is an issue of power…the power to do with Hindu girls as they see fit, because we ‘belong’ to them. This is the same kind of ideology that makes a man think he can pick up two little girls in his Navarra and do with them as he pleases. It is not about age or maturity, it is about power.

It is about time Hindu women stand up and say a resounding NO to the actions and policies of this patriarchal system, and this absurd, abusive and archaic law.

#protectourgirls

PS. If we have to debate the maturity of a 12 year old CHILD in terms of age of consent, performance of sexuality, and the responsibility of the INSTITUTION OF MARRIAGE, then we are a backward society and severely need to re-think and re-position ourselves! Tsk tsk tsk!

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Of pigs and men

It’s that time of the year again when my English students remind themselves about arguments, persuasions and debating.

I sit at my table (for once), my class of 36 young men and women on the cusp of getting their drivers’ licenses have been given a topic and are frantically composing mini-speeches and propositions to offer up in a class debate. I am tempted to go walking around, poking my nose into their conversations and ‘helping’, but I have promised to be a good teacher and let them brainstorm and formulate ideas all on their own (wipes tear, they grow up so fast!).

At last, my budding lawyers and politicians are ready. They have selected two presenters, and I have become ‘Madame Speaker’. I am excited. We are debating increasing the legal driving age, and I know even the ones in support of this motion are secretly against it (which teenager does not want to drive?).  I cannot wait to hear what they have come up with.

They both stand and I give them leave to speak, allowing them two minutes ‘speaking time’ each. The student in favour of the proposition begins to speak. As he is close to concluding, he makes a very good point; a loud voice echoes from among his peers, “Hush yuh stink mouth!” I am aghast. The only thing preventing my duster from sailing through the air towards the assailant is that pesky little law… I yell for order, as the class has erupted in laughter. “You feel you is Moonilal!” One shouts, more laughter ensues. “AG Sexy, yuh taking that?” Another yells, eliciting even more laughter.

I manage to get them back into ‘class-mode’ with a stern warning, and grant them one chance to redeem themselves by completing an otherwise successful debate. The student speaking in opposition suddenly begins to stutter on his last point, concluding with: “I have more to tell you, but not tonight!” His classmate responds, “Why you doh come outside and tell meh! Ent yuh name man?”

At this point I am livid. I get to my feet and begin what they would term, a major ‘blow-out’. I ‘buff’ them about having decorum, respect, good behaviour, appreciation of each person regardless of their differing views; I go into a tirade about discipline and the breakdown of order in society. I tell them they should be ashamed. I say they are the future and if their class room activities are all about jokes, what does that say about our nation’s future? They are quiet, remorseful even. I ask, “What makes you think it is ok to behave like this in my classroom?” One girl puts up a hand, “Miss. That’s how they behave in Parliament, and they running the country. Ent we suppose to try to be just like them?”

I am speechless. She is right.

“Remember, governance is a big word that includes human rights, freedom of speech, economic transactions on a worldwide basis- it touches everything. It’s everywhere” (Vint Cerf)

“With proper governance, life will improve for all” (Benigno Aquino III)

“Self-respect leads to self-discipline. When you have both firmly under your belt, that’s real power” (Clint Eastwood)

“When you speak of role models, when we talk to our kids, everybody is a role model, everyone” (Walter Payton)

 

 

Warrior women and gratitude

As I sat peeling away the burnt skin off my thigh in long strips, revealing the pink flesh beneath, I promised myself I would not cry. I curled my left hand into a fist, fixed my features into a stoic mask and only allowed one or two ‘firetrucks’ and ‘mother-containers’ to pass my lips. (NB…it hurt like hell -_- ) My husband gazed at me in awe, proclaiming me the most amazing wife: brave, strong and tough as nails, since the world is a tough place and he was glad to know his wife could ‘handle it’.

And I was proud. Proud to be declared tough and strong, “My wife”. So I told the story to my mother and grandmother, who both responded, “Because you are MY child!” And I was proud again. To be claimed as the child of such women of strength is definitely something of worth!

The next morning, as I peeled the stuck-on dressing from the night before off of the raw flesh of my thigh, I reflected on these comments. Isn’t it interesting that as we construct our personal histories, we try to do so in a little vacuum? Years from now I will reflect on this memory, saying how strong I was, and how much pain I was in, using it as a lesson to my children about how this body should never limit you, not in pain nor ability. And in other memories I will acknowledge my pains, pleasures, mistakes, moments of love and hate, and I will speak of the things I have come to learn on my own. In my own little vacuum I will construct a personal history that forgets the persons and circumstances surrounding my growth.

And don’t we all do it? Tell stories from our perspective, guessing at or otherwise ignoring anyone else’s input, or not thinking that perhaps this lesson that we learnt may have impacted on or  have been influenced by some other person? How many times do we remember the person whose one word or look or gesture led to our achievement?

This is something I have learnt must be developed in our psyche, not just gratitude for the things done for us in the moment, but a lifelong sense of appreciation to each person who has impacted our growth and development into people worth the salt we are made from. It is my opinion that no matter how successful we are, how rich we are, how beautiful we are, how (insert adjective here) we are, we are nothing if we are arrogant enough to think we have accomplished all things on our own. No man is an island, after all.

Also, in light of election season, it is interesting that political parties are quick to build themselves up and break others down, disregarding the achievements they have been able to build upon. Every five years we do not just recycle persons in power, we recycle ideas and policies, building on what has come before. There is nothing new, just things re-worked, re-worded or re-vamped! We must ever look to the past to adjust the present and assure our future. So why fight each other, when we are supposed to be fighting the inherent problems Trinbagonians face continuously? Stop the race sex and gender talk, and let us begin with the issues!

So, cognizant of the fact that it has taken a village to raise this child, here are my thanks to all who have contributed to my growth thus far.

Ase. Amin. Tat sat.

veera

Sunday Satsangh

Here is Chapter three, Sunday Satsangh

On this one day I am requested to stand here: still, quiet, and overlook proceedings. From morning till evening, I am asked to accept offerings and listen to supplicant pleas. It is not a task I abhor, and as I am asked, so I acquiesce.

Today I take my place quietly, shrouded in sequined splendour, bejewelled and crowned; and look over all that lies before me. The floors are yet to be swept, covered in a light layer of dust – a combination of roadway particles and building sand. Tables and altars stand empty, lamps as yet unlit. Tiny insects make their homes in-between painted toes and gilded picture frames.

There is silence yet, the early morning sounds of barrels being filled to alternate grumbles and bits of song, no longer audible in the emptiness of this hall. The tiny ginger and white Tom-cat yawns and stretches his way across the floor, slinking off through the door to his morning hunt.

Soon they will come: faces alight with purpose, each to his or her own task. They will bumble in one after the other, pay respects to me and begin their preparations. Feet will scurry from one task to the next, rushing the arms of their perceived enemy: time. I laugh at this, for they request me to be here on this day every week, but count the hours from their arrival to their exit, meeting and leaving me where I have been asked to stand.

They will prepare this hall for their oblations, and then fill the air with pounding drums and earnest songs. For a few moments their hearts will overflow with love for me and their faces, voices and limbs will reflect this. For a few moments they will forget the hour and the pressing necessities of their lives and remember only me. In these moments they will long to reach me, they will lay themselves bare before me and ask only to be accepted, only to be loved. In these moments they will truly understand the reason for their lives. It is for these moments alone that I stand upon this pedestal each week.

For now, the air is still. The floor is yet to be swept, the altars yet to become laden with offerings. No plea fills the spaces of this sombre hall. The door is closed. I wait.

 

END

The Same Trip

Here is the second chapter of Aurat, titled ‘The Same Trip’. I hope you enjoy…

Every day for sixteen years Jaya made the same trip: leave home at four thirty AM with the empty pitch oil tin, walk along the main road for half a mile to the village standpipe, fill up the pitch oil tin and return home for another along the same route. She did this three times every morning, seven days a week, except for special occasions when she would be awakened at two thirty and sent out for twice the amount of fresh water needed to complete any and all domestic tasks. She never once questioned her routine, it simply was. The very morning she had gathered her clothes together and rolled out from under her new husband’s arm, she had been set to the duty and up till yesterday it remained hers.

Today however was different, for today her daughter would make the trip instead. At ten years of age she was more than ready to begin taking on some domestic responsibilities, after all in three years she would be married to whomever her father chose and she would need to know how to do these things so as to please her husband’s family and prevent the embarrassment of her own. Since her younger brother dealt with the gathering of firewood and her father saw to the animals and crops, and she was as yet too young to help her mother with the cooking and washing, she would fetch water each day before going to her aunt’s house to learn sewing and stitching till nightfall.

Jaya looked down at the sleeping child, curled up on the cot next to her brother’s on the dirt floor and almost wished she could let her sleep. A small smile flitted about her lips as she turned in her sleep, lost in a dream. Maybe she frolicked through the rice fields with her brother, as she was wont to do when no one was watching, or maybe she dreamt of angels and faeries. Whatever it was that she dreamt of, her face was the image of contentment. Jaya leant down and shook her awake, almost regretting her decision when the child’s sweet face contorted in protest. As she ushered her off outside to rinse her face and mouth from the barrel containing the last of the fresh water, she thought of her own childhood.

She remembered sucking sugar cane stalks with her brothers in the government’s fields, and of being chased through those same fields by the overseer when they were caught. She remembered how her mother would be stern and would even distribute a couple quick clouts amongst them for the overseer’s benefit, only to hug them to her when he left and laugh till tears came to her eyes. She also remembered the day her mother had called her to the wash stand, she could not have been more than eight, and told her in matter-of-fact terms that her father had arranged her marriage to a friend’s son from a neighbouring village and even though they would not marry for at least a few years she would need to learn how to cook, wash and clean. That day her mother had taught her how to wash the family’s clothes, and after a few days of explanations, impatient shouts and frustrated clouts, she had learnt.

Now it was her little girl’s turn. Her father had already begun enquiries in other villages for a suitable young man to be their daughter’s husband. He was so anxious that he should find a good match for her he had even sent requests and hand written copies of her birth-chart to villages in the North of the island, where he had heard Hindu boys were being sent to school like the white men’s children. As Sunita returned, Jaya gave her a folded piece of cloth to rest on her head and hoisted the pitch oil tin on top of it. Sunita looked at her quizzically, but all she said was come.

Sunita had always been an amenable and obedient child, so she followed her mother quietly, wondering what she had done that would cause her punishment to be so bad as to have to carry water. This was always her mother’s job. Ever since she could remember, she knew her mother woke even earlier than her father, who was up with the sun, and went out to fetch tins upon tins of water. Sunita hoped whatever it was she did would soon be forgotten, and she would be allowed to go back to her cot and sleep.

They made their way along dusty tracks, dodging bison droppings and water-filled cartwheel indentations in the dirt. The cane stalks were growing quickly, a lush green colour against the pale blue skies. Soon it would be time for them to be burnt and cut, and Sunita loved this time of year the best. She got to ride atop her daddy’s shoulders as he whistled his way to the cane fields. Once there, he would set her down with the other children and remind her to hide away their lunch where ants and other creatures would not find it. Her brother would come racing to meet them; having been delayed by the games of older boys along the way, and her mother would join the other ladies with grass-knives cutting a path through the cane. Her job, as with the other children, would be to weed away as much of the hard grass that grew around the cane as possible. She didn’t much like the work itself, but when pay day came around, she felt like an adult, lining up in the children’s line before the overseer to collect a big silver coin that she would save for a Christmas dolly.

As they reached the pipe-stand, her mother wiped her face with her sheer gauze orni and told her to put the tin down below the pipe and let it fill up, but not too much as she didn’t want any to spill over on the way back. As the tin filled, her mother began to explain to her that soon she would be married and she would have to learn all the things married women do to please their husbands and their families. As she continued to explain what Sunita’s new daily routine would be, Sunita stopped listening. The word marriage stuck in her mind like the time her ponytail got caught in the chair-plane, and she screamed and screamed for the pain ripping its way through her skull as the ride tried to take her whole body up into the air by her hair. She remembered such pain as she had never before experienced, a continuous throbbing, searing thing that echoed only her screams, until her daddy had come and helped the man directing the chair-plane to stop the ride and take her out, half of her ponytail in shreds. Her hair had since grown back, but the memory of that pain never left. She wondered if marriage was the same, and if her daddy could save her from it.

She knew instinctively, however, that he could not.

 

                                                                              END

Aurat

Over the next few weeks I will be posting chapters of my Short Story Collection for your reading pleasure.

Do grant me your honest feedback, liberally!

Here’s the first story, Chinidad

At 15 she was long past marriageable age, plus she was not exactly quiet-tempered and to top it off, her father was too poor to pay a substantial dowry. So it was by Shirdi Baba’s grace alone that a rich family in a neighbouring village had been more than happy to accept her for their son.

She did not lay eyes on her new husband until three days after she had been at her in-laws house, learning what chores were to be hers from her four elder sisters-in-law. She remembered the shock of seeing him, tall but frail, barely able to stand near the bed they would soon share in a room of their own in his father’s house. His eyes were almost listless, his lips barely able to form a smile through his wheezing efforts to breathe, but he was handsome. He landed on the floor with a thump as he tried to step toward her. She rushed to him, and from that moment on, took care of him more like her child than her husband. She oversaw the workers on his plot of the mustard field his father had shared amongst his sons; she cooked, washed, cleaned and did everything else her lazy sisters-in-law decided not to. But she was happy.

Her husband was kind and gentle, telling her amusing tales on the days he felt well enough to talk. And on the rare occasion he was able to move around, ordered field workers to take them to the bazaar for a few hours, where he bought her sweets, bangles and all sorts of fine jewellery. On other days, too many to mention, she wrapped him in warm cloths and applied herbs to his fevered skin. She fed him warmed cow’s milk and sat for hours with his head in her lap, singing softly so he could sleep. Although she never bore him a living child, they had spent six years together.

Now he was dead, and her in-laws were telling her without preamble or sympathy that she would join him on his funeral pyre the next morning and make a proud sati. She closed her eyes briefly, inhaling the scent of incense filling the room where her husband’s body lay. He was wearing his best Banaras silk kurta, and finely woven dhoti. The white of the kurta made him even paler, so she had wrapped a gold kanawar around his shoulders. Despite his brothers’ protests, she had looped his favourite gold hoops through his ears, and fastened his gold bera to his wrist. The matching one he had bought her was hidden in her trunk of clothes, with several other pieces of jewellery he had told her to keep away from his greedy sisters-in-law. He looked as handsome in death as he had in life, if not a little more frail. She longed for his smile, but knew it would not come. Her mother-in-law led her away from her husband’s body and told her to prepare herself for the morrow. Once within the confines of her room, she slumped to the floor, in almost the same spot he had collapsed on their wedding night, and cried till tears refused to come. She cried for the life she had, the life she should have had with a strong husband able to take care of her, rather than the other way around, and for all the love they shared that could never be revisited. She would never again hear his sweet voice telling her tales of Rajas and Ranis in palaces far away, never would she feel his warm hands gently caress her face, never would she return from the field to find he had woven flowers together to decorate her hair. Her husband was dead. Renewed sobs racked her body and she pounded on the earthen floor. It was not fair. None of it was, and now she was going to die a horrible death. Her wails grew until one of her sisters-in-law came to tell her Babuji (her father-in-law) didn’t appreciate her calling attention to herself, and she was making the family look bad by showing more sorrow than her husband’s mother. She quieted, and her sister-in-law left. No one ever angered Babuji.

She curled herself into a little ball and, holding onto the kurta her husband had worn when he died, she fell asleep. “Jaanu!” her husband’s voice echoed through her mind. “Jaanu!” His soft fingers brushed along her cheekbone like velvet. “Wake up, little wife,” her eyes fluttered open and instead of the kurta she had fallen asleep with, she was in his arms. Her husband was alive! “Swami! Everyone thought you were dead! I dressed you myself, how is this possible?” His soft laugh quieted her and he began to explain that she was asleep, and dreaming, and from now onward he would always visit her in her dreams. He told her he didn’t want her to die on his pyre, he wanted her to live and laugh and have the life he could never have given her from his sickbed. He told her to take all the jewellery he had bought her and run away to the seaside, where she could buy passage to another world. “Go now, Jaanu, my pretty little wife, and never look upon this place again.”

She woke in the dead of night, her face covered in tears and her hands wrapped tightly in his kurta. She quickly gathered a small bundle of clothes, and all of her jewellery, and pulled his kurta over herself. She wrapped her hair in a dark orni, and left quietly. She thanked Baba her in-laws slept like the dead! She made her way through the streets like a frightened rat, jumping at the slightest sound. If any untoward character were to come upon her, she would find herself dead or in a dancing house by the morning. She hid behind walls and under roadside vendors’ tables when she heard anyone coming, and thankfully made it to the seaside before light overtook the earth a second time.

At the docks, she met a sweet old lady and her son and daughter-in-law, who were about to board a huge ship to somewhere known as Chinidad, a place the old lady said where Hindustanis could forget their past and become rich. Only sugar cane fields blossomed in that place, the woman said, and Hindustanis had no one to tell them who was Brahmin or who was Sudra, no one to make them poor or rich but themselves. She followed the woman’s directions and bought herself passage to the Land of Sugar, remaining under the protection of the old woman and her family.

Months later she was led off the stinking ship, thin and sick, vomiting constantly because of the motion of the boat, her eyes darting left and right continuously from having to keep dirty sailors away from her skirts. The island, they said, was a place to keep the Hindustanis until their illness abated, as they did not want others on the mainland to get the sicknesses they brought from across the seas. She stayed in a small, cramped hospital for a few weeks, tended by bakra nurses and the old woman who called her daughter. When she was strong enough, they were put on another, much smaller sea vessel, and taken to the mainland: Chinidad, Land of Sugar. She saw green hills and blue waters, heard the songs of birds and looked up into clear skies. Here she would find her future. It was beautiful; the salt scent of the sea gave way to a sweetness that was more than sugar, rich warmth that vibrated out of the earth. As she was led off the boat at the docks, she dropped to her knees and kissed the earth, thanking her for Her blessings. She vowed to never get on another ship so long as she lived.

She was led to another bakra man, sitting at a desk and taking names. She gave him her name, he checked her travel papers, and made her press her thumbprint onto a piece of paper with foreign writing. She wondered what it was all about, but could not make out the strange words the bakra was saying with his leering smile. As she was being led away by a Hindustani man in bakra clothes, who told her she would be assigned to a plantation now, a bakra voice commanded them to stop in the Hindustani tongue. She turned around and looked into the eyes of a tall man, much bigger than her husband had been. His eyes were the colour of the sea, and he wore a hat over his sand coloured hair. A moustache curled over his upper lip, and he carried a riding crop. He continued to speak, “Leave that one Singh, I want her for my house servant. Take her to the plantation immediately and let the housekeeper know she is to start in the kitchen. Bed her down in the Great House as well; I don’t want her mixing with the field coolies.” She looked at him again, but this time his eyes were fixed upon her. He raked them over her body from her orni to her toe rings, a snake-like smile spreading slowly across his lips. A hard, cold lump formed in the pit of her stomach. She looked toward the sea once more, but the boats had returned and the ship was gone. All around her Hindustanis were being herded along to different bakra men, who branded them and sent them to overseers to be taken to their plantations. The old woman and her family were nowhere in sight. She was alone, and she had not dreamt in months.

END

I am who we are

I see my students milling about, chatting, laughing, playing around. Some of them sit closely together, swapping secrets and begging sage advice from the wiser among them. Others joke around and tease each other. Some of them though, cast furtive glances around while chatting or listening, laughing or teasing, as if hoping no one notices how hard the are trying to fit in. A few of them are visibly uncomfortable, feet tapping, fingers twitching back and forth over sharp pant creases or smooth brown skirts. They cannot comfortably be their true selves. They hide away who they are: the geeks, the nerds, the abused, the misunderstood, the poor, the list goes on; just to be part of a crowd that makes them nameless, a crowd that will happily and easily disown them and make fun of their difference if only they got a chance. Or worst, a crowd that would ridicule and hurt the very fabric of their beings.

And these are ‘ordinary’ children. I see them and I think how much harder it is for our children, Shakta children. Children who cannot afford to pray too hard in public, as the slightest show of physical divinity will cause an uproar, even among others who pray to the same deities. I remember my little popo, a child that is mine even as she is not, telling me a story of picking up a lit block of camphor without being burnt, as if it was a flower, and then feeling self conscious as all the other students starting whispering about her.

Why is it so hard to accept that our children are special? Just as special as everybody else’s children? No different from any others except in their inherent differences? A great man fought many years ago for all Hindu children to have a space for themselves in schools where prayer and ritual occurs in ways they understand. Our Shakta children pray to the same deities, albeit in different ways. If a Roman Catholic or Presbyterian school can accept Pentecostal or Anglican children without ridicule, why can’t SDMS schools accept Shakta children without ridicule? Why can our children not wear their red tikkas, and shakti cords, and our boys not grow their hair?

It is as if the system we fought against to give us a collective space is the same system we use to divide us internally.

One day Shakti temples will unite under a legitimate and properly functioning body and we will build our own schools. And hindu, christian, muslim, shakta, orisha, baptist etc children will ALL be accepted as they are. This is my dream and hope.

Until then, let us not fall prey to the flaws we fought so hard to fix in others.