Another installment in the interview series with the women of GCB.
Written by Cindy Ryan
They married five years ago and then did not see each other until one year ago, but Laxmi thinks her husband is a good match for her. At 15 years old, Laxmi’s parents arranged her marriage to a 20 year old man from Uttar Pradesh, a state in northern India where it is customary for women to hide their faces behind the veil of their sari when out in public.
Laxmi, now 21 years old, started her life in a village in Uttar Pradesh until she and her siblings moved to Mumbai with their parents. Her grandmother became responsible for her care when her mother moved to Dubai to work as a maid. Not sensing or understanding the need to educate Laxmi, her grandmother took Laxmi out of school in the 5th grade to work alongside her as a maid in Mumbai. Working Laxmi as if she were a strong adult, not a thin, tiny boned, small girl, the grandmother refused to feed her during the work day. With only a slight measure of disdain for her grandmother’s actions, Laxmi described her days working as a maid as a mere interruption of her childhood while she continued to carefully embroider the hand made cards we were making at the Girls Can Be centre, only looking up to smile sweetly while I scribbled my notes.
As a poor, lower caste Indian woman whose ambitions and hopes are hobbled by poverty, misogyny and a life in the margins bracketed by tradition, Laxmi is forgiving and not overwhelmed by having no power or choice in her life. Her vibrant personality, punctuated by fits of giggles seems to negate the dread I sense for her future. Often wearing a bright yellow sari, Laxmi arrived at the Girls Can Be centre with the enthusiasm of a small puppy eager to play with a stick. Rarely sad or forlorn, she sat in the circle of women learning new skills and looked forward to the routine paydays, something she has never had and will not have again once she begins living with her husband after the second, more official, marriage ceremony which will take place in the near future.
As she described her upcoming second Hindu wedding celebration, her eyes were bright, and she struggled to remain demure as the excitement of the celebration almost overwhelmed her. She described the gathering of family, the feasting, the image of herself in a beautiful new sari, her delicate hands decorated with mehendi, and the nervousness she felt about moving in with her husband’s parents after the wedding. She was looking forward to a trip to a village in Uttar Pradesh to meet her husband’s relatives, a long train journey as husband and wife. While Laxmi dreams of her wedding, her parents will have to borrow money for a gold ring and the dowry payment, expected to be between ten and fifteen thousand rupees. ($180 – 280 CAD)
During a baby naming ceremony held in the community for one of Laxmi’s relatives, Laxmi was animated, anxious and excited to be part of this grand celebration. During the evening, the baby’s parents and grandparents held court over an elaborately decorated bassinet containing a pudgy, sleeping infant gently swaying in the chaos of the never-ending line-up of community members who crowded into the eight by ten foot home to peek at the baby, leaving behind coins and well wishes. Laxmi pulled me through the crowd, and pushed me inside though the small doorway, motioning me to look at the baby who she obviously cherished. Grabbing my hand again, we slithered back through the crowd and she lead me to a small room off the narrow lane way where the roofs of the ragged, cobbled together houses almost touch, and sat me with Indu and Shashi. While trying to manage heaps of food on a small plate, Laxmi said she wanted to have children and hoped they would get the education she was not allowed. Her mother, a beautiful woman with a gentle nature, joined us, and it was clear that she and Laxmi share a close bond, regardless of the distance they were separated by when Laxmi was a child. Confined to the community, with the exception of one outing with DWP, Laxmi has never been to other parts of Mumbai. During the few outings to the nearby streets, she has noticed other young women wearing modern clothing but she knows this is not the life she will live or the person she can imagine herself to be. She has confidence and an eagerness to embrace her future and the nerve to go through with a marriage to someone she barely knows. I am awed by her excitement and her generous view of the life she is headed toward.
Laxmi and her husband, a furniture maker, will move to his uncle’s home where she will learn to live under the rules and the guidance of her mother-in-law. A few weeks before this interview with Laxmi, I noticed her sitting on the stoop just outside the Girls Can Be room. She was smiling sweetly, her eyes had that far-a way look and she was unaware of my presence. When I tried to squeeze by without disrupting her, she grabbed my hand and pointed to the phone pressed against her ear. “Cindy-mom”, she squealed, “It is him, my husband!”. Laxmi is sure her husband is a good person and she is excited to be starting her life with him. Leaving her side to allow her the pretense of being alone with her husband, I walked down the lane way, picking up children, stopping to chat with some of the other women who were busy with chores, and I began to imagine the life I hope Laxmi will have. A life with healthy children whom she will encourage to have choices and an education, a husband she will always love and who will cherish her, and a future that she can walk towards with confidence. I want that her life will be as sweet and charming as she is.