Shashi and Seema
This is the second installment in our interview series with the women of the “Girls Can Be” centre.
Interviewed and written by : Cindy Ryan
Shashi, a striking beauty with high cheekbones, large eyes with lush lashes and a wide generous smile, was 18 when she started working with Ashley in the community as an assistant in the kindergarten. Her sweet presence in the kindergarten charms the children into listening to Usha Teacher. Rarely speaking in voice above a whisper when we first came to know her, two years later and now twenty years old, she has blossomed into a chattering, excitable young woman who charms not only children, but us as well. She is second in command to Indu at the womens’ centre teaching women much older than her basic sewing skills.
Her father who is a private car driver and her mother, who takes in sewing for money,are anxious to arrange a marriage for Shashi. Although busy with the upcoming Hindu nuptials of Shashi’s older brother, they are keen to find Shashi a suitable husband. Shashi has two brothers and one sister, all living together in a chawl house. ( A chawl is a neighbourood of permanent, legal brick two story homes of about 500 sq. ft., with meandering lane ways connecting the chawl to the busy city streets).
Educated up to the 12th Standard, Shashi is literate, confident and exhuberant but her life experiences have been limited to her parent’s home and her job with Ashley. When we asked Shashi if she wants an arranged marriage, her eyes popped open wide and she exclaimed, “No, I want a love marriage!” Then her eyes narrowed and her smile dissolved quickly as she reminded herself that her parents will not allow her to make this kind of choice for herself so she must be confident that they will find her a good husband who has an education and a good job. Her brother, who can advocate for Shashi in the family structure, can tell the parents if Shashi doesn’t agree with their choice of husband for her but this is just a formality in a traditional household and her parent’s will ultimately decide for Shashi who she will spend her life with.
We asked her what kind of wedding she envisions when the time comes. When Indu translated our question, Shashi, just like most young women of marriagable age, became animated and the two of them chattered on about the details of her impending wedding. She wants to wear a yellow saree for the wedding ceremony, but during the course of the 5 days of festivities, she will change in to three or four different, equally beautiful sarees. Regardless of the exhuberant festivities involved in a Hindu wedding ceremony, the young bride is usually tearful, frightened and pensive because after the last marigold garland comes down she must begin a new life with strangers, leaving her family behind. Visits to her parents and siblings will be dictated by her in-laws and her husband. Shashi, like all brides in arranged marriages must endure and adjust to her new life and never complain.
We asked Shashi about what she would want for her future children and she answered, “I want them to have an education”. Regarding arranged marriages for her children she replied, “No, they could have a love marriage, even to someone of a different caste.” We take note that although women who are in the circumstance of having an arranged marriage, they boldly assert that their children will have choices. For the next generation, perhaps the roots of ‘modern’ India will take hold among those who toil at the bottom of the caste system.
While Shashi is educated, beautiful, and confident, she is also an obedient daughter and will be an obedient wife. Her job skills will be shelved, replaced by the routine of caring for children, her husband and his parents. She must give her mother her full salary from Janvi and Girls Can Be to help offset the cost of her dowry. She is not allowed to socialize in the evenings, occasionally seeing her friends on Sunday. Instead she must cook and clean for her parents and brothers while she awaits her arranged marriage. While this is what life has in store for Shashi, she is not unhappy and when asked if she could do anything she wants, what would it be, she looked up from her sewing, thought a minute and replied, “I would like to work in an office on a computer.” While Shashi will unlikely ever work in an office, or touch a computer, her education, her work experience before marriage and her beautiful confidence and sweet, sensible nature may ensure her children get to realize their ambitions beyond arranged marriages and the confines of tradition.
Seema, Shashi’s 18 year old sister, is lovely, bright, funny, energetic and deaf. Born with only the ability to hear faint noise when she wears a hearing aid, Seema lives with her disability with all the grace she can muster. Her parents took her to doctors when she was young, trying to find meaning and answers to her deafness. Hearing aids were tried, but Seema couldn’t bear wearing them, finding they did very little good. Sign language was never offered as a way to communicate, probably due to the cost of a teacher. Regardless of her disability, Seema is capable and confident. She was hired by us to work at Girls Can Be alongside Shashi, who would help her if needed. Watching Seema take her place among the women of Girls Can Be has been a joyful experience for all of us. Although she can’t hear, she makes herself heard with her cheerful grunts and high pitched exclamations. This is Seema’s first job and she is always early, excited to push the thread through the needle and create little works of art.
Seema was born in Uttar Pradesh and like Shashi, was brought to Mumbai by her parents when she was young. Her parents allowed her an education up to the 9th Standard. When the conversation turned to what Seema’s future would hold, Shashi, who was answering our questions about Seema, became upset. Her eyes were suddenly wet with tears, and she stopped to compose herself. Wiping her tears with a piece of fabric, Shashi said it was unlikely that Seema would ever marry. Although her parents would look for a husband for her, because of her disability, she wouldn’t fetch the kind of husband she deserves. Finding a boy who would agree to marry a deaf girl would be almost impossible, a match only likely if her parents find a boy who also has a disability. Shashi explained, while tears dropped into her lap, that Seema would live with her once their parents can no longer care for her. Looking at Seema watching Shashi talk, although she couldn’t hear what was being said, the closeness she shares with Shashi was palpable.
Seema’s intelligence transcends her disability and her cheerful squeals enliven a long day of sewing in the Girls Can Be room. She is loved dearly by Shashi who will take her by the hand into the next phase of their lives, allowing both of them a sister to lean on. In the few months we have spent working with Seema at the women’s centre, we have been witness to the extreme joy Seema is capable of.
It is bigger than all of us.