By Nupur Singhal:
As a part of the ‘Realizing India’ project from my college, I went to Sehore, Madhya Pradesh. The open fields, the pure air, the Narmada river, the Vidhaynchal range of mountains; the village was serene in every aspect. I was staying with a family in Bilkisganj village for a day-and-a-half. They had recently started the ‘Malwa Adventure‘ homestay to get a subsidiary income and we were their first guests. Bilkisganj has become an urbanised area due to its close proximity to Bhopal and Sehore city.
I went to explore the village in the evening with one of the family members Kamla aunty (name changed). During this exploration, we came across a lake where few buffalos were taking a bath. A stationary boat was in the middle, longing for the helmsman to row it towards another shore. Around the lake, there were a cluster of kuccha (mud-brick) houses.
The houses were made up of various shades of brown color; the dark brown roof was intricately constructed with wooden pieces, whereas the light brown flooring was made of soil and cow dung, decorated with beautiful rangoli (painting). When I inquired about those houses, Kamla aunty told me that people from Scheduled Tribe (ST) community reside there. This depicted separation of communities based on caste. However, I stopped my inner voice and kept talking to aunty.
As we went ahead, we passed by agricultural mandi (agricultural market), the Panchayat office, and then came across a dilapidated building that Aunty said was a hostel for girls from Scheduled Tribes (ST).
When we stepped inside I saw that the girls were indulged in preparing for a celebration to be held the next day. The moment we entered, everyone seemed to get scared and left their chores abruptly. They looked at us as if we were from a different place and were there to keep a check on them. The mutual feeling at that time was both the entities had a lot of questions emerging in their minds.
We tried to strike a conversation with the girls, but they were all hesitant to speak up and were giggling while sitting at the back. Slowly, they started opening up and talked about their dreams and aspirations, that they want to be part of the police force, a teacher, and so on. Most of the girls said they liked dancing and they showed us their dances as well. They danced on famous Aadivasi songs, and we also joined them which sparked a personal connection between us.
I was curious to see how the girls lived, how their day looked like, and what kind of facilities they have, so PriyaJi (name changed), the warden, took us around the place. During the tour of the hostel, I saw that there were 4-5 rooms which consisted of a total of 26 beds for 50 girls which meant that two girls shared a single bed. PriyaJi said that the hostel was originally for 20 girls, but as more girls came in they had arranged for more beds but now there was no room for more.
Due to shortage of space, some rooms served dual purposes. Along with sleeping, one room was used for leisurely activities as it had a TV, whereas one room was used for storage of ration. There were three washrooms and three bathrooms, all squeaky clean. Also, a sanitary pad vending machine was installed. I was just comparing the facilities they get versus what I get in my hostel. What is basic for me like purified water, recreational space, a place for co-curricular activities, is a luxury for them. Do they want it or they are content without this?
Amidst this background conversation in my mind, Priya Ji was constantly offering us tea or coffee. We were a little reluctant as the two caretakers were already late in preparing dinner for the girls and we did not want to trouble them. But they got offended by this and said ‘Humare yaha ki nahi pioge na ap log’ (You would not drink tea/coffee prepared by us) which was not our intention, so we apologized and asked for coffee.
As we were waiting for the coffee to arrive a girl asked me ‘Ma’am, shehar mei log kaise rehte hai, kya pehente hai’ (How do people live in big cities, what do they wear) which made me introspect as to why she asked that question. Is there an aspirational search of glory in urban life or the question was asked just out of curiosity?
At the end of the day, there was a constant question lingering in my mind; What if I were one of the 50 girls in that hostel? How different would my life look like? Would I have the freedom and access to choose the career? Do the privileges that I received by birth play a crucial role in shaping my life?
The quest for the answers is ceaseless!!
About the author: a student of the current batch of PGP in Development Leadership at ISDM. This story is from ‘Realizing India’, a component of the program where the students visit different districts to understand the ground realities of our country.