If you do not fulfill all the rites we will see that your daughters will never get married and you san will be banished from the clan, were the chilling words hurled at meena - Radha's mom - as she sat desolate holding on to her four children. She had gone back to her village in Bihar after the death of her husband to complete the said rituals. At that time she did not know what awaited her. The rituals of the 10th day were complex and costly. Where would the money come from? And yet as she sat alone and devastated she knew she had no choice. Her hesitant and barely audible appeal had fallen on deaf ears. The answer had been cruel and categorical: we she wanted her children to remain within the fold of the clan she had to find the money.
And she did as in this complex and inhumane social imbroglio, predators lurk in search of innocent prey. The answer was simple: she would have to borrow it from the local money lender - in this case the local goldsmith. The die was cast.
The said ritual entailed feeding the entire village and thus Meena had to borrow twelve thousand rupees at the rate of 6% a month or 72% a year. The split moment decision had made her indebted for life. What was even more terrifying was that the so called clan that seemed to exercise such power was strangely absent when it came to extending a helping hand. Meena revealed that during her month long stay at the village her children had practically starved. My blood runs cold at the mere thought of masses of rich food being cooked for uncaring people while the little children of the dead man starve.
After completing the rituals and carrying the load of a huge debt on her frail shoulders Meena took set on her journey back to Delhi. Having barely any money left she bought he cheapest tickets the one that allows you standing space, for a three day journey. Exhausted and hungry she reached Delhi in the dead of night and waited till morning in the chilly night. A kind fellow traveler offered his left over food to the starving children. After having dropped her family in her house, she walked to our centre where we found her waiting as we reached office.
She sat on a chair, desperate and yet determined, knowing that she had to carry on as the morrows of her tiny family were in her custody. She recalled her tale of horror. Her eyes heavy with sleep were threatening to close but she carried on, sharing every detail. We just listened, too shocked to react, not finding the words that would help assuage her terrible pain.
When she had finished her story, we sat in silence for what seemed like a long time, not knowing where to begin. Slowly we tried to ask her what she wanted to do next. She simply answered: whatever you say. Not wanting to push her in anyway, we tried to show her the few and bleak options she had: to find s job, one that would perhaps give her a couple of thousands of rupees but would leave her nothing at the end of the month, or she could if she wanted come to our women centre where she and her children would be safe. She could work and even learn a sewing. Her older daughters could go back to school and we would find a way to ensure that spirited Radha come rejoin her friends at the special section and her little boy would join the creche. We did not push and simply answered her numerous questions: would my children get food, what work would I have to do, where is the centre...
We realised that perhaps this was the first time someone was being kind to her, and she was finding it difficult to believe what she was hearing. She was perhaps looking for the catch, the price she may be asked to pay. We did not push her, we knew she needed time. We just told her to go home, talk to her kids and to the other members of her family and that we would drop and by her home the next day and take her and show her the place.
After a much needed cup of tea, Meera left and we got on with our chores as best we could. Innumerable questions came to mind, each with no plausible answer. One did one begin to comprehend the perplexity of age old social traditions that had lost all their meaning but were still paramount to survival in an India we did not really know. How could one even begin to attempt to change things in a situation where the adversary was so formidable. How did you take on social mores and how essential were they to the lives of such people? Why had no religious head ever denounced rituals that ensured that you would be lost forever? And if the God of Lesser beings had intervened in Radha's case what about the million others who suffered the same fate?
Tomorrow perhaps, Meena will decide to come to our centre - was it not set up for the likes of her - and a new life will begin for her and her family. At this moment this is all I can do though I know that the disturbing thoughts that have come to my mind will not vanish so easily. Maybe I need to remember what I had said almost ten years ago to someone who asked me how I would go about solving all the problems that plague India. If I can change one life, it would have been worth it. So help me God!
Note: Later in the day, Sitaram called to tell us that there was no food in Radha's home and that they had no money to buy any. We sent a bag full of rations to ensure that the family sleeps well tonight