June 25, 2009

And then Freedom Came

BPL women gathered at a training camp in East Midnapore, to learn the nittie-gritties of bank management. They speak of the courage they had to muster to brave hostile in-laws and society to come out and team up for micro-credit and emancipation. They speak of Shonirbhorota (self-dependence) that has come their way since the time they were asked to team up for microcredit.

They cook meals for schools, tailor uniforms, market paddy, weave mats. And gain freedom. And voice. They say they defied the panchayat official, fought with the bank manager, pursuaded the BDO. Earned some money. More respect.

I think of a time when the intoxicating mantra of freedom was administered to me. By some cool women. They were called feminists. They carried cool handloom bags. And spoke of Steinem and Pateman and relativism and right. And cigarette smoke brought freedom. I ask them did you feel less free before, in your predominantly domestic lives? They say yes of course, we were confined in our homes, now even the babus listen when we speak, we are invited to talk at sabhas, we train other women.

Freedom comes, they say, when you relocate on a power ladder. When the babu talks to you. When in-laws stop nagging you. Freedom came when the local panchayat asked you to team up for micro-credit. Freedom came when you were told you could become free. Freedom came when you kept a ledger. Made entries. Caught a supplier trying to cheat. Freedom came when you figured out that home was unfree.

June 18, 2009

Afternoon Irritation and Gentry Bengal

Local trains ferry casual labour, poor relatives, domestic help-women in and out of the the city of Kolkata into the hinterland. I appeared at Sealdah station to find that my train would arrive in about one and a half hours. Humanity scurried about its business. Trains arrived on platforms and poured people out, and similar numbers of people, icecubes, potato-sacks, bicycles, pushcarts would rush in and the train would take off on the next ride. Right then.

On this ride, I gathered one of the more curious things about Bengal train vendors. Vendors of spurious mango drinks, fake ballpoint pens, ayurvedic medicine, I gathered, were all hardcore bhodrolokes. So it hurt their sensibilities to say here, look at my pen, you have to buy this, or else you'd be a loser. They gentrified the process of train-vending instead. Some wanted to be your friend. Some said they could be your son. All clarified that their job was not to ensure that you spent some money. All underscored that they were not petty vendors trying to make a filthy buck. If you were interested you could try out their product. Since they were your sons or nephews, there would be no question of a petty commercial dealing between you and them. Also, they would be slightly hurt that you didn't pay them any attention. As they were not your petty vendor, they were your son, nephew, friend.

That afternoon, a rickshaw-puller urged me to wait for a bus instead of hitching a ride with him. The ride would cost a fair amount and I would go back to Kolkata and badmouth the rickshaw ethics of his neighbourhood. He would not have it. He would rather I wait for a bus, and he lose a ride's worth of livelihood.

Daughters-in-law, sisters-in-law, eighteen-year-olds (with bhelpuri and newfound love) dominated the ride back to Sealdah. There arose a complex crisis of space, sweat, weather, temper altogether. No one shouted. Women got progressively more polite, more aloof, more condemning. Of your lack of sensitivity. Morality. Culture.Gentriness of being. Their coldly polite responses told you that it was below their dignity to fight pettily.

If a fight is required, they'd rather have it the grand way. With guns, flags, languages of freedom and resistance. A fight for an idea. As long as the idea has a flag and some rebel-poetry. A fight for a seat, or simply a fight for relief from afternoon irritation, would be too petty.