It was her wedding day.
Maya woke up as the first rays of light came in through the little opening at the top of the wall. She stretched and went out into the courtyard. The little mud house, the only home she had ever known, was bathed in the pink light of dawn. A new day. What would it hold for her, she wondered. Maya wanted to go out with the goats one last time, so she asked her sister to cover up for her in case her mother asked for her. She just wanted this one morning to herself. Her sister agreed, though she was scared of what their brother would say in case he found out.
After their father died, the son, Ramesh, had assumed the role of head of the family. Maya, her sister Roopa, though married, and their mother deferred to him on all matters related to their home and life. He took all the decisions regarding the family. Though he himself was only in his twenties, he felt the weight of the family on his shoulders. When there was no work on their field, Ramesh along with the other young men from the village would be taken by a contractor to Jabalpur, Bhopal and once, even to Delhi to work as laborers at a construction site. It was grueling, but they got to see a bit of the world outside Bhatiya village. When they came back, their families hung on to every word they said as they described these big cities. It was difficult for the villagers to conceive of these places – it was way beyond their ken. Especially Delhi. They could not even imagine such a place or such, to them, different kind of people.
Maya splashed water on her face from the common pump at the back of the house and then went in to the kitchen. Her two chapathis were kept carefully on the warm embers of the coal fire. She wrapped them in a piece of cloth along with an onion, a couple of chillies and a slice of lemon. Maya then picked up a cloth bag with some books and calling to her goats, she started out on her walk to the forest. Little Rakshak, the kid, had only just started becoming steady on his feet, so Maya picked him up and off they went. The forest was a little way away and she would be spending her day there. The goats would graze and she would sit under her favorite tree watching over them, and calling to them if they strayed too far. Rakshak stayed by her side and before she settled down, Maya gathered some leaves and spread them out for the little kid. She wanted to absorb the quietness and beauty of the forest on this, her last morning tending her goats.
As far back as she could remember this was the routine Maya had been taught to follow – housework and taking the goats to graze. The books came later. They were the addition to her daily schedule. The Sisters who lived in an Ashram nearby, ran schools and balwadis in many of the surrounding villages. There was a school in Maya’s village. She remembered going to the school when she was a small child and standing at the door looking in. It was so fascinating. It was like nothing she had ever known. Charts with pictures of animals, numbers, strange figures… she was entranced. Sister came to the door and asked her in.
Maya remembers she ran away. After a few more forays into the schoolyard, finally, one day, Maya went in and told Sister she wanted to study. There were no chairs or benches in the hall which served as a classroom. There were rows of sturdy cloth mats with an aisle in the middle. Maya was given a place along with the girls. The boys sat on the other side of the aisle. Maya was given a bag, a slate, chalk and picture books. The happy years went by. Her brother insisted that she carry her share of the housework. It wasn’t ‘proper’ for growing girls to study and read all day. She had to help with the chores. After Maya finished her Class 8, her brother insisted she stay home. She had to get married. This was the way of the village. Tears, beatings, days without food, locked up in a room… Maya went through the works, but she wouldn’t give in. Maya wanted to study. The Sisters came over and tried to reason with the brother. To no avail. They persisted. Finally, he agreed to let her study till Class 10. But, no more. It was not their way. It was not the way of the village. They would become the butt of ridicule keeping a grown girl at home, and that too a girl who was literate. He told the Sisters that she would get all kinds of ideas from her books and then how would it be for her. She would only bring shame to the family. He was deeply distressed. The fact that there were other girls in the same village and other villages who had become literate didn’t mean a thing to him. Maya was his responsibility and as such it was up to him to see to it that she was married into a ‘good’ family. She would have to lead her life according to the dictates of the family she was married into. There was no way she would be able to speak or do what she wanted. In fact they would have to hide the fact that she was literate. No man would want a wife who could think for herself, let alone read, write, and think. That was unheard of. This was the heart of Madhya Pradesh. This was their way.
Maya was 15 years old. That was really OLD by the standards of their village. Fortunately for her, her brother had been able to settle her marriage to a ‘boy’ in Darshini village. He hid the fact that Maya was literate. Asked why she was still in her brother’s home at age 15, he spun a yarn so convincingly that they believed him and agreed to the marriage.
The preparations must have begun, thought Maya fleetingly. But right now, Maya, sitting in the forest with Rakshak by her side, was lost in her thoughts. She was spinning her dreams. Of course, she knew what would be demanded of her, but she was intent on creating her own little world.
Life in a village is a far, far cry from life in a city, and life for a married girl in a village cannot even be envisaged by a city girl. Maya, like all her friends, accepted the fact that once she was married, her own life, as she knew it, would be over. This was a fact, no matter how bleak it sounded. There was nothing else. It was the end of the road. Here she would pass her days in the round of duties required of her. Here she would move in the well-oiled groove of ritual, duty and sacrifice till her body returned to rest in the earth. She knew she had no individual identity. Her life was far removed from the pictures she saw in the books she borrowed from her school library. She was a non-entity first in her own home and would continue to be so in her husband’s home. She knew all this. It hurt, but there it was. There would be hard days, she knew. Days of the usual, accepted torture – physical and mental – by her in-laws and husband, and Maya knew that sooner or later she would have to take a decision as to how she wanted her life to play out.
The Sisters had told her she was a child of God, and as such her life was precious. Long talks with the Sisters had helped her to realize her strengths. The Sisters had told her that after a few years, when she had gained the confidence and trust of her husband and in-laws, she might be able to convince them about the need to be able to read and write. This was the only way to get to know what was happening in their taluk and the world beyond. They could prevent being cheated of their rightful dues by the various middlemen in the village. She could, maybe then, gradually float the idea of a small balwadi in her own courtyard! That was a thought worth dreaming about and Maya resolved to work towards this dream. Going back to her home was not an option. Leaving her in-law’s home to strike out on her own was unheard of, and she knew she did not have the strength to fight society. She also knew that if she was caught, she would be killed by the people in her in-laws’ village for having brought shame to them.
Back home, Maya tied up Rakshak and with tears in her eyes she said her good-bye to him and the other goats. Then she went to start getting ready for her wedding. Her mother and sister were frantic that nothing should be found wanting. Her clothes, pieces of jewelry and gifts that were to go as her dowry were all laid out for everyone to see. Maya was sensitive about this. She knew how much money her brother had to borrow. He would have to repay it all with an exorbitant interest. There were huge sacrifices to be made….Maya covered her face before the tears spilled over. Relatives who had come were adding their bit to the usual confusion in a biyebadi or home where a wedding was to take place. Finally it was time to get ready and Maya was dressed very ceremoniously to the accompaniment of songs.
The bridegroom’s party arrived late at night at Maya’s house. Maya went through the ceremonies in a daze and did all that was required of her. She knew she would be considered an outsider by the daughters of the house, just as the other daughters-in-law were. The matriarch too would be very aloof but Maya, being sweet-natured, decided to fit in and please them all. She realized that the more she kept quiet, the less attention she would attract. Maya decided that no matter what, she would make use of her education to make her own little world within the larger world of her in-laws. How she would go about it, and whether she would be able to do all that she dreamed of, she did not know, but she was determined to try. She would try to win over her husband on to her side and even though he would never publicly acknowledge her or her ideas, she believed she might be able to influence him. Who knows, she might even get the chance to help him better his life and move on, rather than letting it rot in the circle of fields-drink-gambling-construction sites. As soon as the rituals were over, the wedding party departed for their village at the auspicious time worked out for them by the priest, taking Maya with them.
And so, with the rise of a new dawn, a new chapter began in Maya’s life.