Saturday, 31 January 2009

Great tumult in Little India

by Shree Venkatram
Publication: The Indian Express
Date: May 17, 2003
Ladnun is a small town one of the most backward districts of Rajasthan. A serpentine road from Ratangarh railway station through parched land takes you there. If you are lucky you would have passed a truck or two, for on this road you travel for miles without seeing a human or an animal. The drought for the fifth year running has left the ground cracked.

Ladnun has quaint Jain havelis, but their occupants have left to make crores in big cities. Some of them maintain caretakers, who keep the haveli clean for the sheth’s annual visit. At the end of one Jain street is the Jain Vishwa Bharti Institute (JVBI), a little university. On its campus rainwater is harvested, bougainvillaea bloom and peacocks strut about.

Sixty bright-eyed girls are doing their first year BA in Political Science. It is the first undergraduate course thrown open for girls. Most of them are first-generation women to receive higher education. Were it not for the bus that the institute runs, which brings them to their college on the JVBI campus and takes them back, many of them would have been unable to attend. The new vice-chancellor of the university knows that and when she threw open the institute’s gates, acquiring a bus was a priority.

The girls revel in the joy higher education brings. When asked what was the first word that came to their mind when they were given the term ‘‘college”, unhesitatingly one of them replied: ‘‘mauj-masti’’. It is like being let out of a prison. And as the girls make friends, explore the university, attend classes, discover the library, try out the latest fashions, the parents look around for grooms. But will these girls marry the first suitable boy?

Unlikely. All of them want to work, to be economically independent. And most of them know what they want to do — law, journalism, teaching, business management and even flying! They are finding out how to get there.

How would a traditional society react to these girls? Would it force them to conform — put them behind the ghunghat or the burkha — or would the force of their collective spirit crumble the small-town middle class bastions and set them free? The tide is strong, and there is no holding back. They want to have control over their lives. Who would know this better than the boys on the campus? Among them is a palpable apprehension of the changing equations. She is different from the women they have known so far. Would they be able to handle this creature who wants to be an equal, have a career and an opinion? Would she respect her in-laws and be god-fearing, cook and wait for them like they have seen the women do? Would they have to share the household chores? And would entering the kitchen be a reflection on manhood? ‘‘Manhood’’ here is waiting for a new definition.

In nearby Koel village, people have turned out in full strength and in their best — from the old bent man to the baby wide-eyed on her mother’s shoulder. The village has no health centre and only a primary school. Its fragile economy couldn’t be worse. But they are celebrating the opening of a bridge school for those girls who have passed out of primary school but could not continue their education because there was nowhere to go.

The villagers have contributed in cash and the labour to build the five-room school. The university helped in devising a curriculum, identifying the teachers and a women’s organisation in a neighbouring town donated a handsome amount that will go towards paying the teachers and buying basic equipment. Thirty enthusiastic girls cannot wait to begin.

The coordinator of this unique project has been covering the distance from Udaipur to check out her new assignment before she moves into the campus. She crosses the desert by bus, train, anything that moves. She is excited — and in the few meetings she has had with her to-be students she has already taught them a song and helped them prepare a skit for the inauguration.

In Sujangarh, a neighbouring town, waits a real surprise. Savita Rathi, a lawyer by training, a mother and a medical superintendent by choice. She switches among her roles with absolute ease and carries herself with supreme confidence. “Yes, it has been tough,” she admits. “Women have to struggle very hard to succeed especially in small towns like these.”

But that is the last thing that bothers these women. They want more from life and are prepared to travel, live alone, study and slog for it. They yearn for a life beyond home.

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