A locality near enough to one of the major railway stations in the map of the Eastern Railways of India: Howrah – the twin city of Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal, India. Near enough to be called a suburb rather than a village. Quite advanced as well in terms of sending their daughters to school and rejecting the age-old practice of marrying girls off before the legal age of eighteen. A locality where Hindus and Muslims have been living as next door neighbours to each other for generations. There were just a few recognisable differences in the looks of the women I was talking to. The presence of the marriage vermilion on the hair-parting and a red dot on the foreheads of the married Hindu women and the absence of both among their Muslim counterparts. The white conch shell and the red coral bangles that married Hindu women wear on both hands, along with the iron bangle on their left wrist – replaced by glass bangles on the wrists of married Muslim women. That’s about it. They wore the same kind of printed cotton saris, spoke the same dialect, complained about the same sort of things like the incessant rise in the prices of everyday commodities and asked the same questions to me. An elderly woman different enough in dress, hairstyle and diction was bound to raise a gamut of curiosities and they kept asking me about my age, religion, marital status and similar other items that would definitely be considered a rude intrusion into one’s private life in a more sophisticated urban setting. However, I was completely conscious that I also needed to know about a lot of issues considered private and responding to these banalities was a small price to pay for the intrusion I was about to unleash for my research.
Among the women was a rather young one, who looked newly married – considering her age and the brightness of her marriage vermilion, the newness of the red sari she wore and the sparkle of the marriage bangles on both her wrists. She spoke little, but her face reflected a spectrum of emotions as the discussions continued on the issues of educating girls, underage marriage, dowry and domestic violence. Enough to raise my own curiosity about her personal history. I felt convinced that there was a story in her that deserved to be unravelled.
Mundeswari is a little known river flowing through the districts of Howrah, Hugli and Purba Medinipur in West Bengal, India. It is believed to have been born out of river Damodar during the devastating floods of 1914 and runs a short course to unite with river Rupnarayan. Almost as if this feminine river used the flood to separate herself from Damodar (a male river as per local myth) and run towards Rupnarayan (another male river as per local myth). In a village on the banks of Mundeswari lived a girl who loved dancing. No amount of punishments from her parents could stop her from dancing to whatever beats she could hear – from the radio that her mother played in the afternoons, though she could hear that only on school holidays; from amplifiers blaring popular movie songs during festivities; or the beat of the indigenous drums during Hindu religious festivals. In the ambience she was growing up in, dancing was considered inappropriate for a decent girl. Dancing is for courtesans – believed her family and generally everyone else in her village. Hence the punishments.
Her life changed forever when one of her aunts, married and living in Mumbai in the state of Maharashtra, India, visited her natal home in the village for a few days when this girl was in her early teens, studying in class VII. Not only did this aunt praise her ability to sway her body in nimble dance moves when she chanced upon the girl dancing to a song on the radio – the aunt also rebuked the girl’s parents for their outdated attitude of looking down upon dance. The aunt mentioned reality shows on television that showcase dancing talent among youngsters from all over India and offered to take this young girl to Mumbai so that she could learn dancing and continue her studies simultaneously. ‘Who knows, some day your little girl from this unknown suburb could become a winner in one of the television shows and become a celebrity dancer on the movie screen after that!’ These words from her aunt painted Technicolor dreams in the teenage girl’s mind; in her waking dreams – she was already sharing screen space with her matinee idols, though her exposure to films was rather limited, given that watching movies was another taboo – broken only during festivities when movies were played from a projector on a big screen in the village square for everyone to see. Her parents’, especially her mother’s, misgivings notwithstanding – she left home happily with her aunt to attain the world of her dreams.
Learn to dance she did. Her aunt had kept her promise. But at a cost. She had to travel to different places to dance, as per the orders secured by her aunt and then let men – their numbers decided by her aunt – ravage her young body. Her initial ecstasy at being invited to perform was short-lived as she realised with a shock minutes after that first performance in the private banquet of an unknown hotel in Meera Road, Mumbai, her aunt’s plans. Her aunt’s lifestyle passed through her mind as if on celluloid as she lay numbed by the pain of that first assault on a body hardly ready for what was being done to her. Her aunt had run away from home with her boyfriend; a man she had befriended on her daily journey by a local train to the city homes where she worked as a domestic help. She had returned for the first time several years later – claiming to be married and settled in Mumbai. The opulence that her way of dressing reflected and the gifts that she had brought for her brother’s family of meagre income were enough to have everyone in the village openly admire or envy her good fortune. Our dancer was just a little girl then, whose swaying to the rhythm of the indigenous drums during Hindu religious festivities was much appreciated. That same interest and ability would become questionable only later as she grew up. So, her aunt was also in the sex trade – the girl had allowed these thoughts to play in her mind as she lay numbed by the sheer weight of the man atop her. She needed her niece now as she was well past her prime and must be losing customers. Our girl hated her love for dance at that moment.
‘I used to hate men also and wanted nothing more than to stab every man I had to entertain. I’d have probably carried out my plan of stabbing clients also and end up in jail – but this client, who is now my husband, changed my life. I am so grateful to him that I’ll drink poison if he asks me to.’ That’s where the newly married woman stopped her narrative. Lucky, of course, to have met a client from her own home state who somehow took fancy to her, kept returning and struck a relationship, was moved by her life experiences and helped her escape to come to her village home as a bride – steadfastly supporting her against all his family’s questions. Several journeys were rolled into her saga – her aunt’s escapade leading to her being sold to the sex trade by a man she had loved and trusted to leave home with; her own journey with her aunt – her heart full of dreams as a dancer; the crushing of those dreams because of the services she was forced to provide post every performance; and then the journey of love with a man who transcended several social odds to make this young woman his wife. ‘Do you still dance?’ I couldn’t help asking her. She blushed a bright crimson and whispered, her head lowered, ‘Secretly – behind the closed doors of our bedroom. We play the same tune on both our mobiles – listening through headphones so that no one else can hear. And I dance. My husband loves to watch me dance, you see – and now I can dance for him and for myself – in sheer joy.’ I left happy from my field trip that day – a rare experience for me as well, since the kind of work I do leaves me mostly with a lot of sadness for situations I can do nothing about.