A meadow. A fairly vast spread, actually. Bordered on one side by the village it is supposed to be a part of. All one could see beyond that vast stretch of land were households indistinctly visible at a distance. On another side is river Ichchhamoti separating this village from its counterpart in Bangladesh, we were told. Ichchhamoti wasn’t visible from where we stood. On the third side is the motorable road, where we got off the car and started walking. I still don’t know what this meadow has on its fourth side. Or on its fifth, sixth and seventh maybe, though the part that was visible looked kind of squarish.
We walked about a kilometre or a little longer, to reach our destination. A little mud-house with a thatched roof located somewhere on that meadow. A lone house all by itself, separated from the rest of the village for some reason unknown to us. A fifteen-year old had gone missing from this house some months back. To the great pleasure of all, she had recently been restored – thanks to the untiring efforts of the man she was to be married to, we were told. Not just to be ready to marry a survivor of trafficking, but also to be actively involved in her rescue had impressed the local organisation that had assisted the restoration, and acted as our access to this house as well. So much so that it seemed that the local organisation had quite forgotten that the man had been ready to commit a legal crime by marrying this girl – though motivating parents and guardians against underage marriage of girls was one of their priority interventions. I made a mental note of this, even as I pondered the deep-seated social beliefs and perceptions that keep such blatant contradictions hidden from the consciousness of even social development workers. ‘How many miles must a man walk down . . .’ Bob Dylan’s plaintive voice was humming in my head as we reached the house to be greeted by a woman in her mid-thirties.
The girl’s mother she was. Only she and the rescued girl were at home, we were told, since her father was a fisherman who stayed floating on a trawler for nine months a year – returning home only during the high monsoon months. She had a younger son who was at school. We were keen to meet the girl and talk to her, but the mother was quite reluctant. The girl had been taken out of school after class V, supposedly because she had been very sick and the doctor had advised the mother not to put any pressure on the young one. And the mother’s plea was that talking to us would be strenuous for the girl…
The mother hadn’t even allowed us to move beyond the front of the house. She stood with her back to the door, guarding it, as if to prevent us from catching any glimpse of what was inside. It was imperative for us to talk to the girl, however. I was desperately trying to think up some logic persuasive enough for that talkative, seemingly domineering mother, to allow that to happen . . . My eyes strayed towards the door of the house, maybe by a subconscious feeling of being watched, and there stood the girl, framed by the doorpost – a look of utter desperation on her face. For a moment, I was more than a little taken aback by her expression, but then she gestured with her hands to say – I thought – that she wanted to talk to us. I sprung to action. Raising my voice over the mother’s incessant gobbledygook about how hard her life was with her husband away and her daughter needing to be taken care of all the time, rather than helping the mother in household chores, as any other girl of her age – I spoke to the girl directly, inviting her to come out and join us. The mother veered around immediately, scolding the girl in stern tones for daring to come out – veering back to face us the next moment and telling us that the girl would be sick if she stayed out of the room for too long; that she was not supposed to talk too much . . .
Even when we finally managed to get the girl to step out of the house to talk to us, her mother stayed rooted to the spot, refusing to budge despite repeated requests. But the look on the girl’s face convinced me that she had a plan. I just sat watching her, therefore. My colleague kept asking the questions. The mother kept prompting the responses. The girl kept parroting everything her mother prompted her to say. And all the while, she kept writing on the ground with a stick – nudging me to read that nearly illegible writing on the dust. To make sure that I was reading right, I wrote back what I thought she had written, and there would be an almost imperceptible nod in affirmation before she wiped out that sentence with the same stick and wrote another. We kept playing this game for nearly forty-five minutes, ably assisted by my colleague – who never stopped asking the questions and making copious notes, till she spied the girl not writing again.
The girl’s version was that the man to whom she was to be married was her mother’s lover. Tongues in the village had started wagging, and the man had suggested this marriage to put scandal at bay. The girl had run away on her own and was determined to do that again, if preparations for this wedding went on. Both her desperation and determination were evident to me simply by the innovative way she told her story – right there in front of her mother.
I was actually celebrating the mother’s illiteracy since that had allowed this strangest of conversations to unfold the way it did – an unthinkable position to take, really! But as I sat stunned for a while as the girl’s written narrative sank in, my entire sense of logic turned topsy-turvy in many other ways. I had no moral issues whatsoever with the mother having a lover, but to plan one’s underage daughter’s marriage with that man? How could the mother fall for the man’s ploy to get the fifteen-year old to his bed? Was the garrulous mother so stupid that she couldn’t actually see the insanity of the situation?
We did manage to save that girl from the marriage, and probably from bigger trouble by preventing her leaving home again. But in course of that one encounter, I travelled from one end of patriarchy to the other. At one end was the mother. Illiterate; coping with economic poverty throughout her married life – maybe for her entire life; managing to run the household with an absentee husband – routinely away to earn money for the family for the greater part of a year; maybe with her relationship with this man being her only respite. On the other was the girl legitimately angry at what she saw as her mother’s utter selfishness. In between was a thirty-two year old man who probably had been back-patting himself for the smartness with which he had planned getting both mother and daughter to his bed. Surrounding them was an entire village – a society – that might force the mother out of her home because of her infidelity – but had nothing to say to a thirty-two year old man readying to marry a fifteen-year old girl. Whose side are we on, really?