Priya is an elderly colleague of mine working at a non governmental organisation (NGO), besides being a guide. She was the first one to talk about a girl, Aashika, who had achieved much on her merit and capabilities, a year back.
I made a note, but as usual, I forgot about this. Then Priya again mentioned this sometime back. On the second mention, I made up my mind to visit Aashika and enquire about her.
The meeting was arranged and I was called by Aashika to come to her house. While I was on the way she called me repeatedly. She was very excited to meet the person who wanted to know her story.
After reaching the rendezvous, I spotted her. She seemed to be a normal girl who laughed easily – even at my juvenile attempts to humour her.
Then, she led me to her house where her mother, father and sister were all waiting. All of them seemed to be incredibly curious. In the meantime, I was forming my impressions on the locality and her house, which was a small one. After having some tea, I started my enquiries.
The family belongs to the Valmiki caste, which is a very low Dalit caste in India. The girl’s parents work as sweepers in a locality nearby. Having done this job for a long time, they were able to bring up their two daughters and a son.
For many years, children of their caste were generally not educated. However, Aashika’s parents allowed her to complete schooling till the 10th standard.
Aashika’s mother mentioned that they had a tough time raising their children with very little money and few resources. “There were times when we had to wait for the kids to finish eating so that we could eat in their utensils later. We had very few utensils. Imagine how we must have brought them up!” she said sadly.
Aashika had to give up academics after completing the 10th standard. She wanted to continue studying, but didn’t know how to, because her family’s resources had severely dwindled.
Moreover, the society around her didn’t expect her to continue with her education, as she had already completed her basic schooling. Then, Aashika started helping her parents and also taught kids in her spare time.
However, things changed drastically, thereafter.
One day, while she was sweeping at Priya’s place, Priya asked Aashika about her schooling. Aashika replied that she had completed the 10th grade. Priya was surprised at this, and suggested that Aashika should study further. Aashika mentioned the financial constraints of her family. However, Priya said that she would bear the expenses of Aashika’s education.
Following this, there was no turning back. Aashika started studying again and completed the 12th standard. Then she got admitted in a college and became determined to complete her graduation. At the same time, she took up a number of jobs (at the clinic, teaching jobs, etc.) to support the household besides paying for her brother’s education.
She also started attending a Teach For India course to improve her English language skills. She also took up courses to improve her computer-handling skills. In between all this, she also helped her parents with the sweeping and housework. In fact, her parents are very proud of the fact that despite having advanced so far with her academics, she does not feel offended about doing something like sweeping.
Aashika recalls she used to wake up early and leave the house around seven in the morning. She used to return late at night – generally after 10 pm. Having no time for herself, all she did was work during those years.
As I listened awe-struck, I wondered why there weren’t more people like her? With Aashika working and earning, her family’s life improved. However, Aashika’s success did not go down well with the society around. They became jealous and started passing snide remarks. They started to question Aashika’s character, because she used to return late at night.
What kind of a society do we live in, where people can’t be happy about their neighbour’s success? Why is there this narrow-mindedness? Why did the people around her not notice and appreciate her hard work and struggles?
In this context, the one wise thing that Aashika and her parents did was not being affected by the vile words that were being spread. The fiery Aashika would sometimes shut her neighbours up. Apart from that, she quietly continued with her work and education.
Aashika recalls the dance competitions she won. Moreover, she also obtained a scholarship which covered the expenses of her college education. At this point, I asked her if she was aware of how much she’d achieved. She simply said that she took things as they came and in her own stride. “If you have the will, then no matter how tough the struggle is, everything can be done,” she says.
Aashika has just completed her graduation – the first in the family’s history to have achieved this. Interestingly, Aashika recalls that she was sweeping when she came to know of the results. She also rushed to Priya’s house immediately.
The story is not of Aashika alone. Seeing her, Aashika’s younger brother is also soldiering on. Besides, her brother is extremely talented in the arts and the crafts. The drawings and craft-work that Aashika showed me are a testimony to the high level of creativity that Aashika’s brother possesses.
According to his mother, he had this knack of making things since childhood. And now, he is in his final year of his graduation. Aashika mentions, with a hint of pride, that her brother is smarter and better than her. He had also taken up a course on cell phone and computer repairing and now expertises in this. He now repairs cell phones of people in the area. To this effect, he even showed me a cabinet full of cell phones, which needed to be repaired.
On seeing and hearing all this, I just smiled and thought of how one person has inspired the other. In the long run, I am sure that Aashika will inspire many more people.
The reasons behind Aashika’s accomplishments shouldn’t be undermined either. Firstly, credit needs to be given to her parents for their understanding and open-mindedness, that allowed her to continue with her education and job, despite societal pressure. Secondly, she has also been immensely helped by the people with whom she works and has worked with. These are people who understand her, support her, and allow her the necessary freedom and flexibility in her work. Maybe, it is because of the existence of such people that our society hasn’t collapsed yet.
Towards the end of this meeting, Aashika said that she wanted to take up a course on banking. However, she refused to elucidate any further. We exchanged pleasantries and I thanked them all for their time. I left with a feeling that I couldn’t know more about her.
The next time we talked, she told me that she couldn’t say certain things in front of her parents. However, she firmly said that she wanted to show to the world what a sweeper’s daughter can achieve. Then, she recalled the demeaning behaviour of the people when she used to sweep for them. Moreover, she was treated as if she was something ‘sub-human’. This is something that she wants to destroy, wholeheartedly.
She also mentioned that her family no longer wants her to continue with her education, because she can’t be married off if she continues. According to their customs, she can only marry within the community. Otherwise, she will be ostracised by the village community. Also, the boys in her community are not as educated as she is, and therefore, she may intimidate them, if she marries someone.
Why aren’t we getting rid of such old and oppressive customs? Why should the village’s community and customs dictate Aashika’s life? Can’t a girl like Aashika dream?
Unfortunately, these are questions which only have personal and circumstantial answers. Aashika is still unsure about the job she wants to pursue next. She is currently working as a manager in a small local business. She does not want to marry. However, she does not know how long she can keep her family off her back.
She has many dreams. Will they all be fulfilled? Only time will tell.
Seldom do we come across such people who have such iron-clad purposes in their lives and also work equally hard to attain their goal. I fervently hope that her family and the society do not end up as impediments between Aashika and her career.
May she rise to the top of whichever mountain she chooses to climb. Something tells me that she will. Here’s wishing the lioness all the best in her future!