Fragments of Rupa's Reality

       I love the way IHDS manages to capture the grand panorama of the Indian landscape. But sometimes it leaves me wanting more, as if there is a deeper truth that I need to capture but don’t have the tools to for it. Last week was one of those. We are in the final phase of testing out small modules. We were in a UP village interviewing the daughter-in-law of a moderately prosperous farmer, a beautiful, well-dressed young woman with two young children. 

      A young girl who appeared to be about 18 kept appearing on the horizon as if she wanted to say something.  I asked her whether she was in school. She pointed to the baby in her arms and said she is so busy with two children that she has no time.  I was shocked to realize that she was mother of two. It took a few seconds to dawn on me that the reason I was surprised was because she looked like an unmarried daughter of the household. She exhibited no signs of being married. She did not have a bindi on her forehead or sindoor in her hair;  unlike her sister-in-law she was walking around with uncovered face. Her mother saw me talking to her and chimed in, “This is my daughter Rupa. Iski to kismet hi phoot gayi hai [her fate is terrible]. She has been widowed and has come home with two children.” 

      I couldn’t find words to respond to her vaguely accusing tone towards her daughter and turned to the standby comment that works everywhere but was especially soothing in this context. I started praising the eight-month-old baby in Rupa’s arms, “What is his name? He looks so alert and interested in everything! I am sure he is going to grow up to be a really bright student.” It brought a smile to Rupa’s face and broke the tension for the moment but it was very clear that Rupa had a story to tell and wanted me to hear it. 

     She caught hold of me as I was walking outside the house. “They married me to my sister’s husband at a very young age, you know,” she said. I was taken aback and asked her about it. It appears her sister had a heart attack at age 25 and after that Rupa was married off to the widower, who later died in an accident leaving Rupa with a five year old and an eight month old. Rupa had returned to her natal home and was living with her parents. She must be older than my initial guess of 18 but I would be surprised if she was older than 22. Already a widow with two children and feeling like a second class citizen in her parents’ home. 

     I asked her if she was thinking about working and she seemed to think she could not get a job having left school after 8th standard and any way, women in their village don’t really work. She just wanted to raise her children and educate them. I am sure there is more to Rupa’s story than I could get out of a casual conversation.  It is hard to believe that a 15-16 year old would be married off to her widowed brother-in-law without the imperative of having to raise her sister’s children. Something must have driven her parents to consent to this marriage. Did her sister really die a natural death? How old was her husband? I am sure there was more to her marriage than I was told in a few minutes.  

      Regardless of what happened in the past, I could sense how difficult her life is going to be over the next few decades. Having seen her father’s anger towards her mother because we were not offered tea and smelt the alcohol as he passed me, I suspect this is not going to be a happy household.  Having met her far more educated sister-in-law who seems to come from a rich family, the inequality between these two young women seems glaring even to an outsider; it would be surprising if Rupa does not feel it acutely. 

     No survey is ever going to capture Rupa’s reality but I suspect I will always look at the handful of widowed/divorced/separated women in our sample of 20 something and wonder how many Rupas are hidden there.

5-September 2011 9:30 AM

© Sonalde Desai 2012