Tuesday, 21 June 2016

The elder

I dedicate this post to my grandaunt, who has looked after us, scolded us, loved us, and spoilt us with sugary treats.

Some of you may remember that I had originally planned to leave for Australia at the end of March. With my bad health and later, news that she was also not well, I decided to extend my stay in India till June.

Seeing her deteriorate in the hospital in May - one of my hardest experiences. When I had to leave, I made a difficult choice supported by my entire family. But every step I take onwards will be in her memory.

Who was she?....

I recently visited my grandaunt's apartment in Surat. As I walked up the steep steps, all my memories flooded back - of my childhood, sitting on tiny stools in the kitchen to eat, playing on the rocking horse in the adjoining room, looking out onto the streets whenever we'd hear music from a wedding party go by, running upstairs to a neighbour's to catch a few minutes of TV.

As I sat there listening to her about how much pain her legs were in and how lonely she had become, I thought back to how she would command our respect.

Don't nod your head; say yes. Clean the room. I learned how to tuck in my bedsheets from her, you know.... Even now, in her ripe age, she still scolded us about how we must learn to cook, take care of our elders, and save money instead of spending it foolishly. Oh, and take sweets from the cupboard whenever you want, ok?

Growing up, she would stand at the door waiting for my grandmother, then in her teens, to come home from school. When it was time for her to get married, she took care of her ill mother financially and physically. She took care of the house, meticulously noting down the household expenses. Soon, she was balancing her work and household life on her own, after my great grandmother expired.

But my grandmother would visit her often. And she would also travel down south to visit my uncles and aunts.

As she entered retirement, she gave up the world of work, but her personality and convictions remained the same. Respect for elders, a clean house, hard work, and meticulous bookkeeping.

But, she grew to feel that she would have benefited from the presence of a male in the household, someone to take care of duties she no longer had the physical ability to do on her own.

I will still remember her though as the family's strong voice, one with the ability to be strict till we cried, and loving too.

As she passed away today, our family is in mourning and we remember her, strong, stubborn, and loving. A champion for some of us in our hardest times.

After all, she was the first person in my family to know and support my dream of travelling the world for a year.

Even if we try we will be unable to meet her level of self-sacrifice. We love you.

The yoga teacher

Story #3 – Alefiyah Siamwala

Alefiyah is my cousin, the future of India, a jewel in the rough you could say. Her energy, her grace, and her dynamism is what I see in almost all young women in India today. How do I even begin to tell her story?! A fashion entrepreneur, a freelance yoga teacher, a photographer-in-training; these are just her current pursuits! And she has many more experiences to boot while growing up in Mumbai.

When Alefiyah was in school, she was, in her words, "a complete introvert, scared of what people would think about her if (she) dared to open (her) mouth. She did not have any friends and had very low/no self-confidence. She did not participate in competitions and was in a state of depression by the time she reached the 10th grade". These are powerful words from someone who has shown her talent and her mental strength in many ways over the past few years....

The day she left school she promised herself she would completely transform herself. When she entered college, she pushed herself to be social. Her degree also gave her a platform to speak in front of audiences. She remembers a particular speech she gave on "The Girl Child”, to which she received a lot of recognition. With each presentation and each new event she organized, her confidence grew. 

Despite her new found confidence, she had to regain herself after graduation. Today’s young women are faced with an enormous responsibility to either get a steady 9 to 5 job, or get married. But there are so many options that they forego because of these boundaries. Due to many different reasons, Alefiyah was also caught in a vicious cycle and could not find a job that she could continue. She also could not find guidance on where to turn next in her career, and relied on friends and her mother for emotional support. She stopped attending events because she would be asked what she was doing.

Today she is happy to say she is a ‘multipotentialite’. We do not need “one true calling”; it is perfectly alright if we are good at many things. In her current pursuits, Alefiyah is able to be creative, and work on her passion for fashion, photography, yoga and writing. Yoga, she says, has brought her a peace of mind which was hard to find earlier, and teaching her clients has given her a contentment no job could ever give her. She has also started her own website and blog called “Trends and Trails” and is a co-founder of an accessory brand called “Threads and Stones”.

Her advice for the younger generation, "People who matter will support you no matter what, and family will come around if you show you love what you do. Go ahead and chase your dreams, live for your passion and make sure the person you look at everyday in the mirror is happy internally as well as externally!"

The entrepreneur

Story #2 – Shamim

Two weeks ago, I sat in my aunt’s kitchen waiting for Shamim to take me to her house. An epitome of inspiration and yet one of the most humble women I have met, her energy was infectious. I watched her speak animatedly about the importance of a regular health check-up. She had returned from booking an appointment for her and her friend, even though her friend was hesitant. Fast forward 30 minutes and we were weaving through gullies to reach her home.

A two-story house with tiled floors, a tiny kitchen, cupboards lining the walls; the bedrooms were upstairs. It also had a bathroom with working sewage facilities; a rare occurrence where this house was located. All due to Shamim. Shamim is a cook at my aunt’s house and she lives in what is known as the slum area; a word I do not like using since it typecasts the people living there as someone desperate and needy. Instead I would like to say that many living here are extremely entrepreneurial. 

This is Shamim’s story.

Now separated from her husband, whom she had helped to get a job many years ago in Mumbai, Shamim is the champion of change in her household and with her community. Her husband has not spoken to her for 2 years. Yet, Shamim, a powerhouse of a woman, has managed the budget of the household, created a network of clients through referrals to homes and events, and is the manager of an informal venture capital fund that collects 5,000 Rs per month from each of 10 members and then donates a random member each month 50,000 Rs. This has helped them buy homes, fund the education of their children, and provide for many other necessities.

Shamim has studied until Grade 7 and was married at the age of 20. As she speaks about the power of education, she says that women need to know that they can be independent financially. She speaks about the desires and aspirations of young girls today and how they need to study, so they can work even after they are married; this is a significant issue in some families in India regardless of socioeconomic status.

She has advocated for the education of her two children, and her nephews and nieces. In their late teens and early 20s, they are pursuing different fields of service that will lead them to stable jobs. They speak very fondly of Shamim, her struggles, and her inspiration.

How can anyone not be inspired by a mother, a sister, and a confidante such as Shamim….

The doctor

Story #1 – Dr. Shobha Kale

I met Dr. Kale years ago when I had a case of Delhi belly right in Mumbai. I still remember her placing her hand on my stomach and diagnosing what I had right away. She left an indelible impression on my mind, as I was back to my kicking self within a few days.

My paths crossed with her this time in Mumbai, as I was seeking advice for the baby in Jodhpur whom I mentioned in my previous post. As she spoke about the resources I could contact, I realized that I could not miss the opportunity to interview her. As a woman in her 70s, still running her practice, I knew I would hear an incredible story about her childhood, and that is exactly what happened!

Born to a family of 4 girls and 2 boys, Dr. Kale grew up in a household where girls were given the opportunity to study, but boys were still the “kings of the household”. Water for the boys? Let the girls get it! Land inheritance? Boys first. But, Dr. Kale along with her sisters woke up every morning, completed their domestic chores, and then went to school. The family did not have a doctor, a huge prestige for any family in any community in India; so Dr. Kale was asked to pursue the profession. “Listening to our parents is how we were brought up”, she said to me.

Now in her 70s, she still believes that parents must guide their children, but she also speaks about families that do not support their daughters and daughters-in-law. Eat after the husband; do not talk to any men, except for the husband; do not work after marriage; why invest in a girl when she will get married eventually anyway. I even learned of stories where, if a husband is not happy with his wife, he leaves her even if she has children, and marries another woman.

As I listened to her story and the stories of many other families, I began to feel impassioned about the rights of women. These are not stories that are told, yet these are stories that exist in every family, regardless of class and level of education. And in some cases, through domestic abuse. It is a sad state of affairs when any life is not given the importance it deserves. 

I ask her what can be done; that I cannot sit passively while women around the world suffer in silence. She replies “This is how it is; it is difficult to change the system”. But, as we continue talking, her words imply that change is possible.

She is a prime example of possibility, just like many other families in India, including my own. In fact, she has also provided logistical and practical advice to many young women and men about how they could overcome their obstacles. What is special about her is that her nuanced advice is offered in the context of family dynamics, in a way that seeks to bring harmony in the household but also empower each family member wherever possible. Because of mothers like her who suffered in silence, daughters are now being provided every opportunity despite the naysayer in the family, the community, and the world.

I dedicate this story to our Doctors, our true intellectuals, and the elders of India; those who seek to amplify the good and always see the potential in every life!