The third installment in our interview series with the women of the Girls Can Be centre.
-Interviewed and written by Cindy Ryan
We don’t remember meeting Indu for the first time two years ago, but since then she has become a friend, a translator and a co-worker despite the issues of culture and language lingering in our Hinglish conversations. Of all of the women we have daily contact with, Indu, who speaks English easily meets us halfway. She refrains from treating us as outsiders in her constrained world by allowing us to treat her as an equal. In India, especially among the poor, foreigners or firangis are treated with the utmost respect. Often when we have helped someone or when we meet someone for the first time, they gently bend at the waist to touch our feet and then they touch their heart. With all due respect to this tradition, it is met with uneasiness on our part to be the one who deserves more respect for simply being foreign and white, but Indu allows us to be friends and it is in this relationship that we have had many conversations and shared many light moments full of mutual teasing, sarcasm, and pranks often with Indu raising her voice while she says, “Hey Bhagwan!!”
Indu has the most beautiful hazel eyes set against copper coloured skin with sharp, defined cheekbones and a grin that stretches from ear to ear. As a 27 year old unmarried woman who has worked at a few jobs and has an education that reached the 14th Standard, she has confidence, ambition and aspirations. When her formal schooling ended she started working for a neighbour making jewelery, and when the neighbour opened a shop, Indu was hired as a sales girl and happily worked there for 3 years gaining skills that she would carry with her to her present job with Janvi Charitable Trust and recently as the manager of the Girls Can Be women’s centre in the Saki Naka slum community. This outside work experience plus her education set her apart from the other women who work at the women’s centre who are mostly illiterate and play traditional roles in their families.
As a young girl Indu lived in a slum in Mumbai with her parents, who are from Uttar Pradesh, and her two brothers until the slum was demolished and they were granted a slum rehabilitation apartment near Saki Naka. After the demolition of their slum home, they lived in a camp for two years until their very basic apartment was built. Her father works as a mechanic at the airport and her older brother works there as a forklift driver. Her other brother, also older than Indu, died 6 years ago of kidney failure and soon after her mother literally cried herself to death, despairing over the death of her son. The other members of her family include her sister-in-law and her 2 year old nephew, Granth, all of them living together in under 500 square feet on the fourth floor of the recently built, but never finished apartment building with a smudgy view of the hazy Mumbai skyline and the international airport a few kilometers away.
While at work at the women’s centre, Indu, who sometimes dares to wear jeans and a t-shirt instead of the traditional outfit of a colourful kurta and leggings, is either singing Bollywood tunes while she works or is cradling her cellphone against her ear while she expertly guides the women in their work. On the other end of the cellphone is her boyfriend. Indu wants a love marriage and she declares that she will marry her boyfriend within a year. At age 27, in her community, she is marrying late. The early death of her mother put the brakes on her family looking for a potential mate for Indu and she found her life partner on her own, causing tension in the home because her father is insisting that she wait until he finds a suitable match who makes more money than her boyfriend. Indu is boldly hoping that her father will come to accept her decision for a love marriage once she is married. Because Indu’s father won’t agree to the marriage, Indu and her boyfriend will not be allowed a traditional Hindu ceremony and they will have to marry at a court, although Indu insists she will wear a sari. Indu has a curious mix of traditional and modern thinking and is aware that as a poor woman in India her desire for a more modern way of life will be difficult. A woman is not supposed to work outside the home. Instead she is to concentrate her energy on her husband and home life, which means cooking, cleaning, having children and obeying her in-laws. Indu sees life differently from her parents and hopes to instill modern values in her children with a link to tradition. “Independence and love marriage will be allowed for my children”, she said sofly. After a moment of quiet contemplation, she remarked, “If I have a daughter I would like her to become a singer because this is what I wanted for myself.” As we watched Indu answer these questions about love marriages and independence, we also noticed she became quiet. She knows that, like a flower that loses its petals in a brisk wind, the gales of tradition might keep her from realizing a more modern way of life.
With marriage to her boyfriend on the near horizon, Indu is saving her wages from the women’s centre and Janvi. Although poor, Indu is somewhat savvy and invests her meagre savings in gold jewelery. With no bank account, this is the way many poor Indians ‘save’ for the future. Gold is king in India and sometimes glitters on the fingers of the poor although most would have to use a money lender to purchase it. Cashing in her few pieces of gold jewelery and using her boyfriend’s savings, the couple plan to buy a 14 foot by 18 foot plot of land in the far northern reaches of Mumbai for 70,000 rupees ($1400 CAD). Indu has calculated that it will take them months to save enough money to buy the tiny plot of dirt and then it will take a further eighteen months of saving to build a simple brick dwelling.
Once Indu’s work day ay the Girl’s Can Be centre is finished she makes her way home, stopping to talk to friends in the chaotic, garbage strewn streets of her neighbourhood which is where her social life starts and stops. Her relationship with her boyfriend is carried out for the most part on her cellphone as she is not allowed out in the evening without her brother as a chaperone. She looks forward to her evenings in her tiny apartment where she helps her sister-in-law cook and clean, and then she settles in to watch Hindi movies on television.
Ending our Indu ‘interview’ with a philosophical question, we asked her, “If you could have anything or do anything, what would it be?” She stopped sewing and took a minute to think, her eyes moving slowly back and forth, pondering the question. Her answer was inspiring and passionate. “I would want to be a politician and change the corruption in India. I want India’s money to be for the people”, she declared. Although it is unlikely that Indu will become a politician, her attitude towards education, jobs for women, the right to choose one’s own path, and her declaration of raising independent children who will be allowed to choose for themselves, we are hopeful that her children may have that opportunity.
Inviting us for dinner at her familiy’s apartment a few weeks ago, Indu excitedly showed us the view from the end of the common beige hallway dotted with doorways every ten feet with a cluster of footwear outside each door. In the near distance an airplane was landing at the airport. Saddened that we were about to leave from that airport in a few days the moment was met with shuffled feet and sideways glances and fortunately interrupted by Indu’s nephew who wanted some adult attention. A few days before, our departure bearing down on us, we held an impromptu geography lesson in the Girls Can Be room. Using our laptop and Google Earth we showed the women where Canada was and told them how long it takes to fly to Canada from Mumbai. They weren’t impressed because it takes longer to get to their native villages in northern India by train. We tried to tell them how many kilometers a plane flies in one hour giving weight to our argument that Canada is indeed very far away. This was met with suspicion and loud chatter. What they agreed on, is that although we disappear in the airplanes they see flying overhead, we will come back the same way, all of us anxious to see each other again. In the meantime, Indu will keep singing Bollywood tunes and planning her love marriage and the children she wants to have, who she hopes one day will have the chance to fly in one of those airplanes.
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