SHE HELD HER HEAD HIGH
A few years ago I was living in Bandra, a wealthy middle-class suburb of Mumbai. On my way to my evening walk, I'd pass by a flashy store, and there on the pavement outside was an aged woman, wrinkled and emaciated, wrapped in a frayed sari surrounded by three dogs. They were all around her, as she petted them, and growled happily as she fed them with scraps from a pot in the corner. In fact she had claimed that corner as her own, for people side-stepped that part of the pavement, and left her – and her dogs – alone.
I was intrigued, and determined to notice her more carefully on my return.
An hour later I passed by that way again. This time she was lying down on a roll of plastic, a bag under her head, an umbrella open above her (it was the end of monsoon, and stray showers often surprised us ), and the three dogs curled around her giving her warmth and safety. Around her the traffic swirled, and pedestrians walked up and down. But she lay back peacefully oblivious to her surroundings.
What an image ! I can never forget it!
Another evening, I passed by earlier than usual. This time the pot was cooking, as there were puffs of smoke coming from the small fire beneath. I moved closer and sniffed the air. Some pieces of vegetable? Some scraps of meat and lard? I came closer and called out to her, intending to make contact. But she ignored me. I called louder, and stepped onto the pavement. At this, two of the dogs growled, and the old woman turned and barked at me in words I could barely understand. Then there were more loud barks as all three dogs and the woman herself faced me defensively.
I fled confused.
But my curiosity about the »dog lady« wouldn't go away.
Each time I passed by the pavement my eyes sought her out. She would be either cooking or sweeping, or putting her firewood in order, or arranging the plastic sheets and bags. Her dogs would be always around her, docile, sniffing her familiarly, never in the way. Where did she come from, I wondered. What kind of life has she had, I puzzled, so that she shuns human company altogether, and is at home with her dogs? That piece of pavement she claimed as her own was neat and clean. How is it she's succeeded all these years in not being evicted, I ruminated. She must be shrewder than she looks.
Some weeks later, a friend of mine, Sushila, a photographer, accompanied me for my evening walk. Sushila specializes in urban photography, and I told her of the »dog lady«.
»Perhaps you can take a picture,« I suggested.
»Why not ?« agreed Sushila.
We both approached the old woman, and while I approached the old woman, my friend positioned herself with her camera. Once again, the old crone shouted at me in unintelligible words, and then gestured wildly at Sushila and the camera. Her dogs picked up the cue, and started barking, all three dogs and the old woman joined them.
For the second time I retreated, and so did my photographer friend.
»That woman isn't mad«, observed Sushila, »but she has a sense of herself and her privacy, and doesn't want it intruded upon!«
We walked away thoughtful.
That evening as we sat together in my flat, Sushila and I, a neighbour dropped in. She is Marisa, an older lady, who's been living here for years and knows the local scene like few others. We were talking about our experience earlier that evening, and naturally Marisa pricked up her ears.
»You're speaking of that mad woman on the pavement near the Alpha Century showroom ?«
»Yeah,« said Sushila. »But why call her mad ? The woman isn't mad, I'd say. She has a sense of her own privacy, and doesn't want it intruded upon.«
»Whatever!« replied Marisa somewhat disdainfully. »But what sense of privacy can a pavement dweller expect ? They should have packed her off years ago, but somehow she's always bounced back. She's survived. So there she is, and there's nothing you can do about it.«
»You seem to know something about her,« I prodded Marisa. »Tell me, is there something more to her story ?«
»She turned up here with some others, let me see ... about three-four years ago. They came from Gujarat. Some calamity, some drought, I think.«
»You think? You're not sure?« I asked.
»Well ...« said Marisa a bit patronisingly, »They're all the same, aren't they? They dump themselves on the city, dirty and ragged, and scrounge for whatever they can find in the dustbins. Trouble is, our municipality is useless. Can't clear the roads of these squatters, so they come back again and again ... like cockroaches.«
»Don't use such harsh language!« I interrupted.
Sushila took my side. »Yes, Marisa. They're not cockroaches; they're people just like us. They've had a raw deal in life. Probably displaced from their villages because of drought or famine, and the government doesn't give a damn where they end up. Slums or on the pavements, no one cares ...«
»Well, let them go somewhere else ... « argued Marisa. »I don't want them on my front door..!«
As Sushila and Marisa argued, my mind drifted away ... to the small village in north Gujarat where I had lived and worked for many years. At that time I belonged to the NGO »Jyot«, which worked for the uplift of indigenous tribal women. Those last years there were very bad years.
The drought had meant that nothing grew in the fields, that the men had moved to the big cities in search of work, that the women were desperate for any little income to keep hunger from ravaging their children. In desperation, they had turned to the relief work offered by government agencies. Anything to survive!
I remember our meetings where we tried to find alternatives.
»I'll tell you!« Shankuben spoke to the others. »In Mankroda we got relief work in road-building through a local group.«
»What local group?« asked Kamlaben from Lakshmanpur.
»Stri Sanghatan,« replied Shankuben. »If you want to put your finger-thumb stamp, we can make an application and take it to taluka (=obchina).«
»They will accept application from women?« somebody asked.
»Yes, they have taken our forms,« said Shankuben. »Even though our men continue saying that women don't know anything, yet Mankroda women also got other government development schemes ...«.
»So«, Kamlaben spoke now, »why don't we do something similar?«
So the application for relief work was drafted . It was Kamlaben who wrote it, for she knew how to read and write as she had finshed her 4th standard. And women's thumbprints were fixed to it. »Tomorrow ten of us will go to taluka office«, Kamlaben declared. »Who is coming?«
»Yes.Yes!« they all cried out. Each woman contributed one rupee for the travel expenses. Everything was so spontaneous! And Kamlaben led the group.
But some murmured. »This Kamlaben thinks no end of herself, eh. She's too pushy. Wait, we'll show her ...«
Finally the area was declared a scarcity zone and women were overjoyed. In their enthusiasm, the women went on to demand that the relief work shouldn't be of the usual kind of road-building for a bus route , but rather to level the fields and deepen the wells. It was up to the Collector of the district to decide what kind of work and when it would start.
In fact, the relief work started the next Monday.
Kamlaben and her group were overjoyed. But some men spat into the dust. »What does this bitch think of herself, eh?«
Workers, mainly women, were divided into five, and each group had a man as a leader whom they called »gang-man«. They planned the measure of their ditch: one and a half meter long, one and a half meter broad and one and a half meter deep. Four women dug away furiously in the heat of the sun, breaking the hard-baked soil and filling their »tagaras« hoisting it on their heads and throwing the mud away ...
Each woman had to fill 170 tagaras in eight hours and walk the equivalent of 8 km carrying the mud on her head if each of them were to receive rupees eleven per day! In fact they got just 5-6 rupees a day -- five rupees was grabbed by the thekedar(a contractor), and one rupee was swallowed by the gang man.
I went around the sites of relief work and saw women working and sweating in the sun. Their faces looked tired with despair.
Kamlaben said, »Can someone demand so much work from us?«
I nodded, »Is there no another way?«
»No,« rejoined Kantaben. »After two days of such work, three women from my gang had already collapsed. There's only one thing. We must bribe the overseer, the gangboss.«
»Never, never,« said Kamlaben. »Not bribing, but demanding. Come with me, I will show you how.«
That evening Kamlaben and fifteen other women surrounded the gangboss who made the payments. »Why are you giving us only five rupees, eh ? We want eleven rupees, that is the rate !« Kamla could say this because she knew how to count. The women showed their anger, and the gang boss was afraid, so that evening all the women got their fair rate.
And the next evening too.
But the word went out. »That tall adivasi woman from Lakshmanpura, that bitch Kamlaben must be dealt with. Fix her when she leaves the worksite.«
One week later when I returned, Kamlaben wasn't there. I enquired about her, and the gangboss replied, »Don't search for her here. She no longer here! She's gone.«
»But where ?«
»Don't ask, woman. Better you don't ask.«
I could not get any answer from any of the women from Lakshmanpura, nor from any one from the other villages. They were just silent, hostile. Her absence puzzled me because Kamlaben had always walked boldly, where others had feared to tread. Kamlaben lived alone with her two children and her mother. Now she had just disappeared.
It was only much later that I came to know of the underground network which kidnapped girls to work in the sex districts of the cities.
Oh, Kamla, Kamla, where did they take you ? How did they break you?
One evening I went to the neighbourhood bakery. There was a rush of people at the counter, and I waited my turn impatiently. Suddenly I saw her! The same bent stoop, the same frayed sari (or was it different one?), and yes, one brown dog nuzzling her legs. She was in the press of people, just ahead of me.
I thought quickly: Let's see what she's asked for, and let me pay for it.
She gestured for two »gootlis«, that crusty bun for which Mumbai is so famous. The boy placed two buns on the counter, but before I could even fumble in my purse, the dog lady had slammed two coins herself, and walked away with the bread. As she did so, she turned, and for an instant we gazed into each other's eyes. There was a hint of a smile in those faded eyes, but she held herself high, as she walked through the crowd, and was soon gone, the dog with her.
I was speechless. This was no beggar woman wheedling scraps for her boiling pot. Old and feeble she might look, still she walked firmly, and placed her money on the counter with confidence and pride. I saw dignity in her glance.
Suddenly I was ashamed, I had misjudged her, thinking her to be a lowly beggar, living on the street. I judged by her externals. I realized in that moment that she was quite another person altogether, a woman of humanity and dignity, whom life had wronged, and whom society had, in a sense, discarded. No one spoke to her, nor did she entertain onlookers. It was only animals who understood her, and gave her company, warmth and protection. But where she lived, she had made a home for herself, no matter how deprived her circumstances.
I passed her pavement often after that, and my earlier look of curiosity was now tinged with respect.
Marija Sresh: first version: August 2008; second version: June 2013
ABOUT MARIJA SRESH
Marija Sresh came to Gujarat, India, in 1971 as a missionary. She started her work by first learning Gujarati, and in 1976 took a degree in Gujarati literature.
For almost four decades she worked with tribal women, the Dungri Garasiya Bhils, in Sabarkantha district, a remote part of Gujarat state. Slowly and with lots of patience, she planned schemes with them for self-sufficiency – like milk cooperatives, literacy camps, tree-planting projects, and training for embroidery. The work had this aim: to make the women aware of their dignity, and to train them in leadership and authority. It was another way of building community, of sharing and nurturing, of creating a different kind of society. At various times Marija started three women's organizations: 'Stri sanghatan' (Women's organization) which at one time counted more than 10,000 members; 'Jyot' (Flame); and 'Pragati Mahila Mandal' (Progressive Women's Group).
It was her tribal women who asked Marija to write »real stories« for them. She responded by putting her experiences with her women into her writings. As the great Gujarati writer Manubhai Pancholi ‘Darshak’ said of her, »We writers of Gujarat didn't consider the tribal a worthy topic for literature. But this foreign 'ben' (sister) has brought the tribal woman into our literary consciousness, and for this we shall always be grateful ...«
This is one reason why Marija has been acclaimed both in Gujarat and her native Slovenija, and as proof, she has received more than half dozen literary awards, both in Gujarat and in her home country.
Marija’s first book in Gujarati was Girasma ek Dungri (1994), translated into English, Spanish and Slovene (Tam,kjer kesude cveto, 1998, 2006).
Her latest book, her fifth, is in Slovene, Pod Krosnjo Stare Jablane (2015), a collection of 20 »stories of women from East and West« . She describes how women everywhere cope with change, using courage, patience and creativity.