The Girls of Bagar; The Girls of India
The girls of Bagar continue to inspire me, but where is Bagar? A not-so-quick search on Google Maps reveals a tiny dot in Jhunjhunu district in the particularly conservative Shekhawati region of Rajasthan in Western India.
How exactly does one find inspirational girls and women in an environment which seems to be conducive for precisely the opposite phenomenon? Bagar is a place where the official sex ratio is a shocking 921 girls per 1000 boys which is worse than the already low national average of 933 per 1000 (2001 census). It is a place where daughters and daughters-in law are non-entities. It is a place where girls still eat the least or the not-so-nutritious leftovers after the men have finished their meal. Where women from some sections of society are completely veiled off from the world (they never reveal their faces to anyone, not even other women) after marriage. It is a place where women sit on the floor while men sit on chairs, where a 16-year old boy dictates the terms of his 34-year old mother’s life. It is a place where the idea of women working in a BPO (Business Process Outsourcing) is almost considered as a threat, and women’s empowerment is definitely threatening.
It wasn’t my intention to unearth stories of inspiration when I spoke to these women. I was just happily living by Indicorps’ ‘Look, Listen and Learn’ maxim as we squatted near the chulha and sipped hot chai. I asked 16-year old Deepika, sandwiched in between questions about the newborn calf she was taking care of and the rabi crop, about what she wanted to do after she finished school. Deepika, though visibly tired from an evening in the family field, suddenly looked re-energized and her eyes lit up as she said, “I want to be a doctor. That’s why I chose Science this year. I will spend a year studying for the pre-medical test after I finish school. But since there is no one to help me prepare for the test in Bagar, I will go and live in Jhunjhunu after I finish school. And then I will go to a medical college in a big city. I don’t want to waste my life here.” I asked, “Will you go all by yourself? Will your parents let you?” And she replied, “Yes, all by myself. I have already told my parents that I am leaving Bagar in two years. That should give them enough time to accept the idea by the time I actually leave!” She had a streak of independence that some confuse for crazy here; she looked beyond the conventional and the “possible”.
On another day, in another part of the village, Kamlaji and I were making rotis and chatting about life, her marriage at age 15 and the consequent end of her education, her ambitions for her daughter Anju and the correct amount of lal mirchi for the best kaachre ka saag in the world. As the room became filled with the delicious aroma of fresh rotis, Kamlaji, who has spent little time outside this very room, said to me, “The reason that Anju can study for her B.A. is that my father-in-law now sees other girls from the village studying too. But it is also because I put my foot down about her education even though I couldn’t do the same for myself. A girl needs to be independent, financially and otherwise. Who can predict the future? Who knows what fate could befall her? Who knows what kind of husband and in-laws she ends up with? She needs to be prepared for life.” As I stirred the world’s best kaachre ka saag, I reflected on how inspiring it was to hear this from Kamlaji, who never had this independence but had the power to imagine it, who never had education or opportunity but wanted to ensure that her daughter did and could inspire people along the way.
What’s so special about the girls of Bagar? I’m excited reply – probably nothing. In fact, I hope nothing. I hope, or rather, I suspect that there are many Kamlajis and Deepikas scattered around the country but no one has bothered to ask and listen to them. We just haven’t realized the power of the imagination and inspiration that still thrives in seemingly adverse environments. These girls have the power to create meaningful change in their lives and the lives of many others. They just need to be asked and heard.
Aditi Poddar, August 2009 Indicorps Fellow