She is Your DAUGHTER – NOT Your Son!

My encounters with TV entertainment are limited. Only very occasionally I do tune in to the popular trending shows. If only to assure self and others that I still belong to the world, here and now. That I am not quite a dinosaur or an alien already.

So, when it comes to catching snippets of Indian Idol Junior‬, ‪I have learnt to ignore the painful drama of the presenters, the silly, sanctimonious and repetitive script of the judges, and the sheer pointlessness of the format. After all, my taste in art, music and entertainment is not what the nation wants, and if a gladiatorial decimation of young talent is what sells, who am I to rail against it?

But today even my serene, accepting, let-it-go attitude has had enough. Hence this post. From a rattled and ranting me. On the raving lunacy I perceive being playing out on a widely watched iconic show. In praising one of the contestants, a young girl called Naheed, Sonakshi Sinha prattles thus : “I noticed what your Dad said to you right at audition time, and that is what my Dad says to me, and it makes me feel very proud. That you are not my daughter, you are my son.” Or in Hindi, ” Beti nahin, Beta ho Tum”.

So, we were being told again, on a very popular nationally broadcast family TV program, at PrimeTime, by a young working woman, a daughter of a famous yesteryears cine-star, that being a daughter is after all a cross. And only when your father can see you as a son, are you blessedly redeemed! And if and when that happens, count your lucky stars for the wonderful, progressive and great man you have as a father. A man who can so magnanimously let you step into the shoes of a son!

I only wish we were in a time-capsule and this scene was taking place at least 40 years ago. Or even 20? But we are in 2015.

I felt sickened to hear Sonakshi do this. I felt the toxic touch of a deep rot that seems embedded into the psyche of so many of us. I wonder if Sonakshi has at any time felt bad that her Dad is not proud of her as a beti (daughter)? Did it ever ever bother her, as to why there is even a need to bring in the beta (son) comparison ? What is the sub-text of these statements made so blithely and so proudly? Do Sonakshi and the millions who mouth the same kind of lines realize that by deigning to respect a girl only by accepting her as a beta (son), you invalidate her very being, her very natural state? You deny her a valid existence in the skin she was born with. It is as if only when the taint she carries- her daughterhood, is relegated to irrelevance,  supplanted by her being seen as a son, that she can truly make everyone proud, and truly be one with her worldly achievements and glory!

The fact is in our minds and in our ways of framing world views, we are still lagging behind. A show like Indian Idol allows all genders to participate as equals. It is not like some places having rules that forbid certain things for a girl. But no, we have to still act like we are in the times of the ‘abla naari’ – the helpless, victimized and weak woman. We are like this only, and we will extol misogyny! Being a girl is still not congruent with worldly success in our minds. Else why the need for the imagery of a son, to tell the tale of a daughter’s glory? I doubt I can wrap my head around this one, but I promise you I am trying very hard!

Naheed did well because she is hardworking, talented and so on. She should not have to bear the ignominy of being validated as a son she is clearly not, and being invalidated as the daughter she naturally is. Can we respect our daughters just as daughters, without the need to see them as proxy son‬s? Can we stop stripping them of their natural birth-given identity and sense of self in moments of their greatest triumphs, by not saying about them ‘beti nahin beta ho tum?’

At the birth of a girl, many so called modern, progressive parents decide to be really good to their daughter. By asking her overtly to not do ‘girly’ things. By drilling into her how she is the beta, and is therefore free to do all the great things a beta would. What about telling her instead, dearest daughter, you are a wonderful new life we are blessed with, go live your life to the fullest, chase your dreams, and let us be the wind beneath your wings?

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Winds of Change

As we drive down the forest road at dusk, my co-passengers in the jeep talk of animal sightings and sundowners by a bonfire that await us back home. It is a cool, damp-after-a-thunderstorm evening, with a freshly mixed misty mauve sky. The snow peaks around us glow with an orange hue from the setting sun, as they flirt with massive, fluffy, white clouds. A stillness is settling in as the day winds down in this remote part of the Garhwal Himalayas. IMG_8036

We are driving back to our vacation home , after a walk in a Protected Forest Zone. It had been a walk of many discoveries, with views to make you stop and stand and stare into eternity.

I feel happy at my good fortune to be here, living out my dreams. The word ‘Leopard’ uttered in the flow of the conversation, just then, does not strike me as connoting anything besides another name on the laundry list of sighting possible…until I hear specifics of color, size and shape – and look up to see the front seat passengers excitedly pointing to the edge of the road! It seems they had seen the leopard! It was standing still and staring at the car as it slowly approached him, then jauntily flicked its tail, turned and disappeared down the wild rose laden slopes.

Now, a leopard roaming the hillside, without harming the humans around, is good news really, scary though it seems to some. It means he is able to hunt some wild game there. Which in turn means the wild game had enough greens to eat. Which further means the forest is doing well, despite being literally cheek by jowl to a fair sized human settlement- a Tehsil town no less! Reason enough to feel gratitude, and awe for the work being done by the simple, unsung staff of the forest Range office at Nagnath – Pokhri. Staff that include a young Rekha Negi, the 22 year old lone lady forest guard we had just met.

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Rekha Negi had taken us around on a guided walk through ‘her’ range, talking to us about how she joined the force four years ago, just after high school by clearing a competitive exam. About how she studied and worked hard to learn all the botany and zoology and firearms work and legal stuff the job required her to know. And how she now roamed the forest alone at times, on her rounds, armed with her government issued gun, fear and duty lodged firmly in her heart, spurring her on to do her job well. And how she lived on the forest range office premise with the rest of the range staff, in the government quarters and cooked all her meals and ate them alone. About how she and her family were determined she stand on her own feet, earn an independent income and be someone in her own right.

Even if doing so meant she was miles away from home, working on a high risk job, living on campus with men and women she had no previous connection with, and making a definite break with custom and forging a completely new path. Even if, in doing so there were times of extreme sadness, longing and loneliness.

As Rekha spoke and walked us through her work area, I noticed the glow of pride on her face and the ring of accomplishment in her voice. How excited she was when she walked us through the new oak and deodar forest they have planted in a degraded and denuded patch of hillside near their office. How she took us to each young tree like a proud new mother, and described the sorry state of the slope before the new saplings were planted. Before the work they were doing started making a difference to the better health of the local ecology.

The image of Rekha was still playing in my mind when we reached home and walked by a freshly lit bonfire in the yard. I caught a glimpse of our neighbor, getting out of her cowshed and walking into her kitchen to start the evening meal. A lady who was so shy to speak with me just 5 years ago, barely raising her eyes to meet mine, head demurely covered with the pallu of her sari and bowed down. Today she is a changed woman. As the elected ‘Nagar Panchayat Adyakshaa’, the local councillor for a group of 6 villages!

It is a ‘reserved for women’ seat, so she is rubber stamp candidate of sorts, as her husband is the real power behind the throne. And yet, the changes in her are real.  As they are around her too. In the better local roads, the  public utilities like a new bus stand in the market,  and most striking and significant of all, the public toilets for women near the bus stand. It is clear when I meet her now, that she herself is a changed person too, aware of the shifts of power and perception, as is her husband. And it is almost magical, the transformation of their equation.

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Where earlier she would not even look at him directly, now she talks freely and loudly in front of him. He speaks to her far more respectfully, and considers her opinion in many matters unlike before.

She walks with her head held high, her clothes worn better, her hair always groomed, her skin and eyes glistening. She talks more confidently, even approaching my father and my husband on her own, in my absence and carrying on a full conversation with them.

Barely literate herself, it is her school and college going kids who  help her write and rehearse her official notes and speeches. She now chairs meetings where IAS officers and other govt. bureaucrats share space, ideas and time with her. For which, she tells me, she needs stylish cotton handloom saris from Delhi- Can I get her some the next time I visit, please?

She is aware now how the scales have shifted, how she is now someone with some heft beyond the usual role of the village farmstead housewife.

A tale of two once obscure women in the remote, unexplored part of the country. Treading new paths, making a difference to all those whose lives they touch. Bringing about change. Inspiring others.

Note: This piece was first published on the BizDivas India blog,  http://bizdivas.in/road-travelled