Renu is a woman in her late thirties, perhaps mid-forties. She is thin and dark, with striking features and a rare, sudden smile that lights up her face. She does not know her exact age. From Calcutta, she has married into a rural family on the outskirts of Kashi a long time ago. Her family includes her husband, her elder son, and her daughter.
She has seen it all. She recounts her experiences of sixteen years ago. Traveling to the city flower markets early in the morning and returning late at night, to sell flowers procured from Calcutta. Carrying her tiny baby daughter in her arms. Necessitated by her husband’s ill health and inability to work.
But her spirit appears to be made of stainless steel, and her fiery eyes glint when she talks. She is very aware of the poverty and patriarchal constraints that bind her, and articulates her feelings clearly, powerfully with people she is comfortable with.
Renu forays into the world of Kashika
Her first entry into the world of Kashika happens in early January 2019. Kashika is still at the conception stage, nascent, an idea not fully formed. When gently asked if it will ever be possible for Kashika to take-off in a society where families do not encourage women’s mobility and choices, pat comes Renu’s reply without any hesitation.
“ Aisa kuch nahin hai didi. Ek baar paise haath mein aaye, toh pati-wati kuch nahin rok sakte hain. Auratein bilkul baahar niklengi, agar paisa haath mein aayein”.
An interesting hypothesis that economic independence is a direct precursor of social independence. One that is sorely tested as our journey progresses.
Initially, the husband appears comfortable with her deciding to engage with this ‘masala pisai’, thinks it is just like kaam pakadna in a conveniently located factory. That concept fairly familiar to him, and he is a progressive husband who doesn’t seem to mind others being curious about his wife’s new ‘job’. Slowly, it becomes apparent that this is not simple mazdoori, the sort that he is used to. His wife is becoming too involved and, as he pithily puts it, udhar ka.
An interesting phrase. Udhar ka, as opposed to what? Idhar ka? Slowly, people start noticing and they ask her questions, very respectfully. “Oh you’re at home today, you usually go somewhere no?”, a stinging taunt delivered by a busy body neighbour in very respectful tones. The husband, beginning to internalize this, begins to give her various suggestions on negotiating more wages, wants her to take other women along with her, wants to come along too, and wants to shift the unit to his house so that she doesn’t have to step out! She rolls her eyes and raises her eyebrows.
Auraton ke bhi apne sapne hote hain didi, she states firmly.
And continues to do her best.
After a break necessitated by various health challenges in the family, she is hesitant to engage. Is she still welcome? Pride and self-respect are paramount, she is extremely dignified at the core of her being.
When assured that she is certainly more than welcome, she suggests that she may be able to engage for half a day every day, given her pressing domestic commitments. But most days, she comes and spends the whole day anyway. Says she enjoys it. It is the pull of the evening adrakwali tea that everyone shares, perhaps.
Her brother and son are very supportive and love the fact that she is engaging. Aap zaroor jaiye , they tell her. Her husband also sometimes comes visiting her at the unit. Slightly uncomfortable, awkward, unsure about whether he is really welcome there, but really wanting to understand better. A proud man, a nice man. Trying his best to comprehend what this is all about.
“Yeh sab kya hai Renu?”
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