On a balmy summer night, near the Ganga river, my extended family crammed into one small room with divergent shades of yellow light casting a shadow on us. It had been over ten years since seeing each other, yet this reunion was a bittersweet one. As we surrounded my grandmother’s sister, Dadi, lying on a mattress frail and sick, my thirteen year-old self noticed how much of the weight of the room—the tough decisions of what hospital to go to for treatment, how much could be afforded to spend on medical bills—fell on the twenty-one year old daughter, Pia. My aunt, whom I called lovingly Pia bua, was the one who was cramming in her studies at the Banaras Hindu University working to get a degree in teaching, handling her mother’s failing cancer treatment, and keeping her emotional baggage in check by putting on a smiling face while making us an Indian dish consisting of chole bhature. Despite the unfortunate circumstances in which I met Pia bua, I remember her determination to leave the city of Varanasi. The conversation she had with my parents was that she was going to avoid getting married, move to a bigger city, make a decent living, and support herself. Her voice filled with certainty as she said, mujhe woh karna hai jo mein Varanasi mein nahi kar paungi. Kuch banna hai jo shaadishuda ladki Varanasi mein nahi kar paati: “I want to be more than what Varanasi can offer me. I want to do the things a married woman could not do here.”
In India, marriage is considered a part of life. It’s looked down upon especially for a woman entering her thirties to not have a husband. According to the organization Girls Not Brides, the average age for marriage in India for men is twenty-six, while for women it’s twenty-two. However, in rural areas it is more common to get married between the ages of eighteen to twenty. For women in India, the expectation of getting married prevents them from becoming financially independent and having a career. It keeps women locked in the cycle of becoming domestic laborers.
When I went back to visit India last summer, five years after meeting Pia bua, I was very surprised to see her holding a little baby boy with black kajal around his eyes. Within the mere five hours I spent with her, we shared the details of everything from daily life to pictures of the milestones covered since we had last seen each other. She showed me pictures of her wedding, all of which except for one did not include the groom. The one of her and her husband showed the two of them standing side by side decorated from head to toe. Pia bua was wearing a red sari with an intricate gold leaf pattern and a heavy fall. She was decked out in jewelry: a big nose ring and two heavy, yet beautiful jhumkas. Her mehndi was done from above the elbow to her fingertips and glowed a deep red color. Seeing her reflect back on her wedding day, it was apparent that she held that day to be the most valuable day of her life, and yet it had nothing to do with the person she was marrying. What threw me off the most about the picture was the fact that the couple standing side-by-side were not smiling. They seemed to be two strangers surrounded by loved ones who were making it all happen. What happened in the five years since I had seen her? When did Pia bua’s tenacity falter? I know I couldn’t ask her these questions because I didn’t want to come off as the outsider who knows better or make her feel ashamed in any way for succumbing to society’s pressure and expectation.
Trying not to step on the obvious egg-shells, I asked her the question that had been on my mind since I arrived: why aren’t you working? In my mind she could still work and raise a child; she had so much passion to educate the world around her. Pia bua just kept looking straight into her baby’s eyes. After a brief pause she replied in Hindi, uske Papa mujko kaam karne nahi denge, “His father won’t let me.”
I knew it wasn’t my place to ask more questions at this time with so many elders in the room. So I had to do what most women in India have come to terms with: I let it be. Letting it be doesn’t, however, change the fact that this is the story of most women in India, especially in Varanasi. Sure, as my grandmother likes to remind me whenever I point out absurd injustices, times are changing, but I know they aren’t changing fast enough.
On the same trip to India this summer I also met an eight year old girl named Chandini. She is Pia bua’s niece. The whole time I was with her, Chandini kept asking me to tell her more about America.
Didi aap America mein konse type ke kapde pehente ho? Udhar ka culture kaisa hai? Wahan log kaise timepass karte hain? Wahan life kaisi hai? Wahan jaane ke liye kya karna padta hai? “Didi what types of clothes do you wear there? What is the culture like in America? What do you do for fun? How is life there like? What do I need to do to get there?”
I tried my best to answer these questions as honestly as I could, but with her parents staring at me with eyes that sent messages of not to engage too much in these thoughts with her, I wondered if she would ever really be able to make it. The last thing she told me was:
Mujhe bhi ek din udhar aana hai.
“One day I would like to go there too.”
What The F Guest Contributor