Two years since, I still can’t forget her face. She was wearing a plain Olive Green sari. We were sitting together in a dimly lit medium-sized room built of bricks, in a village near Sant Kabir Nagar (originally Khalilabad), Uttar Pradesh. It was late into the evening. The only light outside was that of the full-moon. Electricity was a luxury here, and no one in the neighborhood was able to afford that luxury yet.
Sadhna* was sitting on the bed, facing me, with one end of her sari covering her forehead. She wouldn’t talk. We sat in silence for a while, 4 minutes to be precise. I wanted her to speak first. She didn’t. My role, on that day, was of an interviewer, and in that role, I was handed a 20-page interview form with more than 90 questions with a time limit of 90 minutes. Those were my tools, to try and get to know all about Sadhna, from her date of birth to the most intimate, personal detail of her relationship with her husband. I was running out of time. It was already dark outside and at this hour, the area was known to have drunk aggressive men who wouldn’t let young girls walk out of their village easily.
A team member suggested I quit this one but I knew she will talk. She just needed some time, like I always do, with a stranger. In this case, the stranger didn’t even look or speak like her. A few more minutes of silence later, I thought it best to introduce myself elaborately and see what she has to say in response.
By now, I had kept the form aside. Nothing can be more intimidating in an informal conversation than a piece of paper, to read out questions from, specially when the other person is already terrified for reasons unknown to you. As I told my name and clarified my purpose of being there, which was to get to know her daily life better, she cut me off in between and said,
“बेकार ज़िन्दगी है. कुछ नहीं है बताने लायक” (My life is a waste. There is nothing worth telling.)
“Why would you say that?”, I asked.
“ठीक है! पूछो जो पूछना है.” (Okay! ask whatever you want.), she said.
I was nervous now. Taken aback as well. Nothing shakes up a privileged person more than a poor person’s disinterest in her. In a matter of seconds, I had started questioning my existence here. With added self-doubt and a crushed sense of entitlement, I tried again.
“Do you not want to talk? There’s no pressure, really. I’ll leave right away.”
“हम यहाँ नहीं रहना चाहते. पति रोज़ ज़बरदस्ती करता है, मार-पिटाई करता है. हमें दूसरा बच्चा नहीं चाहिए था लेकिन करना पड़ा. तुम शादी मत करना. फंस जाओगी जैसे हम फंसे हैं. रोज़ सोचते हैं कहीं भाग जायें लेकिन बच्चों का ख़याल करके रुक जाते हैं.”
In that moment, for a short while, we were in the same state – of vulnerability. Why was she confiding in me? I wasn’t the sounding board she deserved. I couldn’t even empathize with her, ever. She would always be that woman for me who I’ll feel bad for, who tolerates domestic violence and physical as well as mental and emotional torture but can’t do anything about it, like millions of others around the world. Of course she wasn’t the only one. But, she was the first one who had trusted me enough to have confessed her willingness to run away, to have thought that her cry for help would not go waste this time. Did she think I could do anything? Did I think I could do anything?
Believing it to be true, I asked for her phone number, in case I could help. She gave the number and said,
“फ़ोन पति के पास ही रहता है. बाहर काम करते हैं. आजकल आए हुए हैं. कल नशे में खुद को पंखे से लटका रहे थे. बड़ी मुश्किल से बचाए. सबको परेशान किये हुए हैं.”
She had more to say. I sat quietly beside her, controlling my tears. She continued,
“सास समझती हैं. वो बिना किसी को बताए हमें ऑपरेशन कराने ले गयी थी. कम से कम, अब और बच्चा तो नहीं होगा. हम शहर से हैं. पढ़ाई भी की है, लेकिन अब क्या फ़ायदा. शादी करके सब बर्बाद हो गया. कहाँ जायेंगे.”
I had a lot more questions now, the ones outside the form. Why wouldn’t she let her husband commit suicide if she was so troubled? Why wouldn’t she go back to her parents? It’s only now that I know how immature they were, but she patiently answered them all. Neither letting the husband die, nor returning to her native home was an option. She was socially and financially dependent on this man she despised with all her heart. I didn’t understand domestic violence. It was out of my imagination to think that she could get killed if she tried to run away. We maintained the eye contact for the interaction in next one hour. We both were a bit stronger in that one hour.
I had come back and cried that night. Next, I narrated the whole conversation to a friend over a call, and cried again. A few days later, I had given her phone number to an organization working with women in that area but they didn’t really promise anything. She was one of the millions. Until today, I get reminded of those hopeful eyes and wonder how she would be now. Until today, I feel weak whenever I think of her.
It was my eighth month of the fellowship. Like a lot of us, as a young person, one of my reasons to explore the social sector, was to be able to help others. As an outsider, that’s usually the first thought – to be helpful, with your knowledge, or skills or if you’re arrogant enough, just with your presence. This instance was an early realization that on most days, you would find yourself to be helpless, and not helpful.
It was an early realization that when you go out to change the world, the first thing you change is yourself. That process alone, takes years and meanwhile, if anything else changes for better, know that many others before you made an effort in the same direction. Know that many others changed themselves to make that change possible.
*Name changed to protect identity