Ichchhamoti meets Vidyadhori. The capricious river of the North 24 Parganas district meets the locus of knowledge of its southern counterpart. Ichchhamoti is whimsical indeed, or why else would she forsake her original course to flow full-bodied into the canal a landlord had dug so the peasants in his land could irrigate the fields? The original has shrivelled to a sorry ditch with less than knee-deep water in most places, maybe hurt by this unreasonable desertion. Does Vidyadhori, the feminine container of knowledge, join Ichchhamoti to drive some sense into her quirky mind? Geographers would laugh at such a question, of course, but that doesn’t stop this columnist’s mind from wondering – as I was, that afternoon in the summer of 2010.

A small village of some 60 odd families on the confluence of these two rivers near the Hasnabad town in North 24 Parganas district of West Bengal, India. Not unexpectedly, the car had to come to a halt some two kilometres before reaching the village, leaving the remaining path, woven into paddy fields and bamboo groves, to be covered by foot. The intended destination, once again, was the last house in the village – straight on the banks where the two rivers hugged each other.  A small little mud hut with a thatched roof – the confluence in front of it and a tiny field of lovely green young paddy saplings behind.

Quite a few women and children had gathered on the open compound where we sat on a mat spread out for us – enjoying the soft sound of the water and the chirpings of known and unknown birds. The women and children had walked with us, curious to find out what business two evidently city-bred middle-class women had with this rather poor family – landless till the other day. The father chatted on about how they had secured one bigha[1] of land a few years ago from the Gram Panchayat[2]  through the land reform initiative of the Left Front Government of the state, still in power then. I looked at the soft green paddy field his fingers indicated and its spread looked somewhat more expansive than just a bigha to my eyes, only empirically semi-trained, but I needed to steer the conversation to the point.

‘How did your daughter go missing? It’s nearly two years now, isn’t it?’ Moments of pin-drop silence muted the human gathering there, making the bird sounds, the faint rustle of the paddy saplings and the leaves of other trees around suddenly more prominent. The gurgling of the confluence dominated the atmosphere. Then the father resumed . . . A long, twisted narrative of how a youth from neighbouring Bihar had come looking for work in this village, how he proposed marriage with the daughter, why the father did not agree at first and why he changed his mind, what happened after he lodged a missing diary with the local police.

There were several incongruencies that I kept making a mental note of. Young men from the state of Bihar do come to West Bengal in search of income-earning opportunities, but that is to the urban centres, of course. Why would anyone land up in so remote a village where the lack of livelihood opportunities drives local young men out in search of work elsewhere? The reasons offered by the father to justify his change of mind about marrying off his 14 year old daughter to a man of about 24/25 by his own estimate were far too fuzzy to be accepted without some probe . . . The father waxed eloquent about how he has left no stones unturned to trace his daughter since she just vanished after leaving with the groom; how the mobile phone number of that young man from Bihar had become ‘does not exist’, how the local police had confirmed that the address provided by the young man was a fake one, since there was no village, apparently, with that name in Bihar . . .

‘But why didn’t you do these enquiries before marrying your daughter off with him?’ – broke in my colleague, perhaps unable to take the father’s inconsistent narrative in an ‘Oh, I’m the victim’ tone any longer. Indeed, someone who had come looking for work and hadn’t found any – why would any father want to marry his daughter off to him, and that, too, at the ripe age of 14? ‘Did you approve of this match?’ – I directed this question to the mother, who remained silent. ‘None of us understood the language he spoke – only daddy could talk with him’ – one of the younger children quipped. The man resumed his narrative about realizing his folly a little too late.

There was some story somewhere that hadn’t been shared, I was sure, for a lot of things didn’t make sense. But we’d exhausted all our avenues of inquiry. There was nothing more we could ask. The local NGO person accompanying us was also getting restive as dusk was settling gradually in that tranquil village . . . As we were readying to leave, I couldn’t help asking about the size of the plot that belonged to the family. ‘You’d mentioned one bigha – but this paddy field seems larger.’

The mother, who had been sitting silently throughout, sprung up like a jack-in-the-box and spat on the ground with a loud splutter. The intensity of the disgust and condemnation packed into that action was unmistakable. Hardly had we recovered from the suddenness of this act when she uttered one single sentence and vanished inside the hut: ‘We have two bighas of land now and the second plot has been acquired at the cost of my first-born.’ The father seemed to be receding into the descending gloom as we recovered enough to start on our return trek to the car.

This is not really about the greed of one father, who chose to sacrifice his eldest daughter to an unknown and in all likelihood unsafe future to gain some money to buy an extra bigha of land. This is not about one mother who could neither prevent it nor leave the husband responsible for this. This is not about one 14 year old girl from a landless family in rural Bengal, never enrolled in a school, with no capacity, maybe, to dream of a future other than marriage and homemaking in an equally poor situation, not just economically, as her mother. This is about many girls in similar situations who leave their villages never to return – working as unpaid farmhands and maids in the households of the landed gentry in the states of Bihar, Haryana, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh – forced to offer sexual services to all men of the family – dying finally from psycho-social emaciation, leaving the post open for another of her kind to arrive. Horror stories recounted by the few who manage to somehow escape and retrace their footsteps back to their natal families. This is about the inherent contradictions that allow us to worship goddesses and look at daughters as burdens. This is about the failure of governments and civil society organisations alike to address deeply entrenched imbalances in resource distribution – economic and otherwise.

Maybe the strong-willed caprice of Ichchhamoti to break away from the set course in combination with the inundating wisdom of Vidyadhori will change the fate of the daughters of rural Bengal, some day!

 

Notes

[1] A traditional measurement for land used in Bangladesh, India and Nepal, corresponding to marginally more than 400 square metres. The exact measurement, however, varies from place to place.

[2] The lowest tier of local self-governance in West Bengal, India.

Paramita Banerjee

Paramita Banerjee

Paramita Banerjee is a social development professional with a passion for travel. This black-coffee drinking bookworm, music lover, movie buff and adda enthusiast travels both for her work and in leisure, making the most of every trip – soaking in the atmosphere deeply.

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