May 05, 2008

Shakti - The Power

Last couple of weeks have been crazy. I have been travelling all over Western Uttar Pradesh trying to figure out how best we can develop grass root women entrepreneurs in the villages of India. Things have been tough. Often we have faced hostility, indifference and at times even sheer contempt but then at other times I have seen women fighting against all odds to create a new identity for themselves. And for those moments, every pain is worth it.

My travels have taken me to the most interior areas of Agra, Mathura, Jhansi, Lalitpur and Bareilley. Almost everyday, I have travelled more than a hundred kilometres often on the back of a motorcycle. Just an year back I had been in a land ravished by floods. Today I see around me scorched land that has been yearning for rains for the last three years. People have left their villages to cities in order to search for some form of livelihood. In those villages around Bundelkhand, I have stared at blank, expressionless faces, faces that made me cringe inside; faces that asked the simple question – what good is a hungry empowerment? There have been moments when I have wanted to run away from it all. I have sat and stared blankly into the wall when I could not take the abject dance of poverty, illiteracy and exploitation I have seen around me. Yet in the mornings, I have fought my way back to these villages just for the faint glimmer of hope that has never died down. I have realized that most of the people I know are basically cowards. I am perhaps the biggest coward of them all. We all have paid and continue to pay lip service to the realities just a few hundred kilometres from our safe havens.

My respect for the Government and the bureaucracy has increased tenfold. Yes, there are problems. We as a country are great at corrupting something that is good. But yet, the success of the aanganwadi, sarba sikhsha abhiyan and asha programs have started to change the way of life in the villages of India. One of the latest initiatives of the Government has been to keep aside a certain amount of money for every girl child for poor families which she will get when she becomes of marriageable age. In other words, the Government is agreeing to pay a part of the dowry. As disgusting as it may sound, I think this might just be the greatest initiative for saving the girl child and correcting the highly skewed gender ratio in India that is slowly leading to our own destruction.

I have met women who want to break free and yet are tied by gender bias that spreads across religions in Northern India. I have seen them control their urge to speak out their minds in front of the men. I have seen them huddled together in a corner waiting for us to specifically address a question to them. I have met women who still feel that they can contribute much better to their family by staying within the confines of their houses. I have met women who have confidently stepped out and with her sales acumen have put my two years of the best management education to shame. I have been cut short in the middle of my rather lengthy speech with shouts of “Ee lalla, e toh hume malum hain.” I have been surprised at the product knowledge and brand loyalty in the heart of the Cow Belt. I have seen the stubbornness in refusing to encourage healthier activities if it clashed with their beliefs. I have seen the assumptions we make about the Indian women broken and reformed with every conversation. I have been given the respect I do not deserve. I have met ladies who reminded me of my grandmas. Just like them, these ladies whom I were meeting for the first time did not want me to go away without eating at least a little Kadi-Chawal. I have made an innocent face and nodded in agreement when they have blasted my company for sending me out for work in the scorching heat. I have found care and concern from people with whom I had never met and perhaps will never meet again. I have had to forcibly take out the fan from a person’s hand who insisted that her work could wait but fanning a tired me could not.

I have seen an India divided on the lines of gender, religion, community and caste. I have seen people create barriers between themselves when none exist. And as I experience it everyday, I realize that at the root of every discrimination is economic and income disparity. I have seen the poverty cycle at work making the poor poorer and the rich a lot richer. I have seen a disillusioned India which has accepted her fate. I have seen an India that wants to leave and never come back. I have seen an India that wishes for the return of their sons and daughters but more than that wishes for their success.

Around 4 years back when NDA lost the Lok Sabha Elections despite the much hyped India Shining campaign, everyone had a different opinion. When Chadra Babu Naidu or S.M. Krishna lost the elections, everyone was surprised. But my experiences during my travels in villages around Pilani had told me to expect such results that would confound all the poll pundits. Every village in India today is more aware than ever before. Every single villager I have asked in supposedly one of the most backward states in India have been able to tell me the exact number of votes they have as a village. Never ever have I been happier with the grassroots democracy that has helped this crazy nation of ours to survive through every problem. And just to assure me again that the paradox called India will continue to amaze me, I have seen them allow a local politician stop our meeting and make an impromptu poll speech that they very well knew was of no use to them. This is the India that will send a dynasty back to power again and again, because of the loyalty they had for a matriarch ages ago. This is the India that will choose a proven goon if he is from their community or caste. This is also the India that will silently bring about a change that they feel is necessary for them. This is my India that even today thinks with her heart.

I have always respected the power of women. Even before the Aryans came, Indians worshipped the Mother Goddess and not without reason. The more I see the women in the villages of India; I realize that they are perhaps the sole reasons for the survival of our species. I have seen women keep the family together without even a little help from the men. I have seen her aggression when she has fought tooth and nail for her family. I have seen the steely determination when she quietly vowed to make her young son successful in life at all costs after her husband and her elder son passed away. I have seen Annapurna, the kind provider for everyone, I have seen the glimpses of Kali who will one day destroy every evil around her, I have seen Lakshmi saving every penny for the house, I have seen the dormant Sarawati who laments her lack of education but will not let the same happen to her children, I have seen Durga, the embodiment of Shakti – The Woman Power.


Addy said...

You know, you have put your finger on the exact thing I miss here in the US.
Indian Optimism - that is what I miss. In spite of Obama screaming Hope Change Liberty, I am yet to find the people around me charged with the optimism I had got used to in India.
Thanks for reminding me - THE BEST IS YET TO COME.

Anonymous said...

I wish you would write more about the places HUL takes you. You seem to have an infinite capacity to enjoy, learn from and find hope in the sorts of experiences that would leave a lot of the rest of us simply disillusioned. Genuinely touched, mentordada.

Shreya said...

Me too..ur best ever..watery eyes and all :) I could relate to some of it..I know how caring complete strangers can be esp when they dont have too much to spare, they will surprise u with their generosity..and how savvy and smart most people we discount as illiterate are..awesome stuff..I am looking forward to it.