It was on a Friday afternoon that the lady who works as a caregiver for my elderly parents fell violently ill and wanted to go home. It was now for quite sometime that this middle aged woman, a mother of two girls and a wife to a not so physically fit man had complained of chest pain, congestion and nausea. She also seemed to be too much on the phone, largely distracted and unmindful. We took notice because this was not her usual self. There was something definitely amiss. But she did not open her heart to us, kept her distance and then took leave on grounds of illness. Only on the following morning she did not report for work feigning illness and the need for rest. But I got a phone call from her on Saturday morning in which she confessed that she was in deep trouble because her older daughter, Nafisa had gone missing from home and that only me, because I lived and worked in Delhi and that too for the Central Government could help her in some way to help her find her daughter.
I of course said a firm no. Domestic helpers in Kolkata have a strange way of drawing you into their personal lives, burdening you with stories of their poverty and misery and constantly seeking your advice and then bad mouthing you for interfering in their personal matters. I am too familiar with such patterns. This is a way of their seeking power over you, overlaying you with guilt regarding your life style, your education, your freedom and above all your leisure; in all their woes they seem to be accusing you of being born fortunate. Sop stories are meant to destroy you, besseeching you to sort their matters out is a way of unsettling you; these strategies which Mr Scott missed out while writing his tome, Weapons of the Weak. So I stay away from being manipulated. But then eventually the guilt of my capabilities overwhelm me; I know that I can help and so I do. Whats the loss of peace of mind on a Saturday morning compared to the agony the family was going through, I thought.
On hind sight, I was more concerned about the safety of the girl; even if she left home on her own, would she join a terror outfit? would she be trafficked? These apprehensions crossed my mind. I asked her mother to provide me with the facts of the case. It was then that a young man came to the phone; he was, the mother introduced, the son of her older sister and betrothed to be married to Nafisa. Bengal, despite its claims to being modern and intelligent has the lowest age at marriage for girls . This is a convention that started way back some four centuries ago, why one knows not. Gauridaan, which means that giving away of an infant as soon as she was born seems to be a much preferred custom; the age of men can vary and the grooms, if they are of the right income class or caste status could even be dying of old age. It was in this custom, notwithstanding the fact that Nafisa’s was a Muslim family, but by being Bengalis first, her marriage was fixed with the preferred groom, the parallel cousin from the woman’s side. It was this boy, called Sayed who had come down from Mumbai ever since the Eid -ul-Fitr in the monsoons to stay on ever since in Nafisa’s house. Her escape from her home must have had something to do with the boy’s coming for it was since he arrived that our caregiver had started falling ill, most probably with worry.
It was once that Nafisa came to visit her mother and us in our house. I thought the girl to be greatly ambitious, desiring to break free of the trap of her social class. She was a good student, a diligent worker and was eager to do well in her examinations. Her mother would tell us that the daughter was a favourite with her teachers and that she was on stage for as many as three dances in her school’s celebration of Independence Day. But she was also that kind of a young person who thought that she knew everything. This happens with children who do far better than anyone in their family, do better than their peers, have friends among social classes above their own and go to schools where her cousins may never think of enrolling. Nafisa, was one such person, over confident, arrogant yet, unknown to herself, had a rather limited exposure to the world, if for nothing else, then at least for the social status of her birth.
Anyway, I go about collecting the “facts”of the case; yes, she called up through her own mobile number and said that she was on her way to an undisclosed location entirely on her volition. She had planned her escape long ago, had friends who helped her, no, there was no way that she could reveal their names, and that she would return after four years on her birthday. She was not eloping, nor joining the film industry, but she was going away to study so that she could make something of her own life. Any resentments? yes, she did have two of those. One was that she suffocated at home and the other was the mother was away most of the times. I visualize. Suffocated in an empty house? Cannot bear to be home because no one lives there? This was not right; you suffocate when there is too much, emptiness makes you lonely. A young girl with her handsome fiancee who showers presents on her should have been an attraction enough for her to stay at home; mother being away would give them privacy to make some love as well. Yet, she chooses to run away, and in what a way! to an undisclosed location !! Is it not obvious that she is running away from the fiancee? may be because she tried to sexually violate her? Nafisa, tells my mother had been steadfastly refusing gifts bestowed upon her by the fiancee. Among such gifts were some of her favourite aspirations, a tab and ornaments. All of these she refused to touch because she wanted to have nothing to do with the supposed to be fiance.
Bengal, I hear is the world’s capital of trafficked women. One of the main reasons for traffic is escape from home and escape into an imagined Eldorado of material comforts. Arranged marriages, forced marriages, marriages of convenience and most importantly, underage marriages constitute the overwhelming reasons for girls to flee home. Girls are sent to school and educated, they are showered with affection, chaperoned and molly coddled with fine clothes and money is spent not only on education but on her cultural achievements as well. Most, irrespective of the social class, are not even allowed to go into the kitchen, or sow or knit or even to look after younger siblings. The girls, almost ubiquitously are brought up like princesses. But such an upbringing is like raising a lamb for the table, for marriage and not career is the grand finale of such parental efforts. For it is through marriage that a girl finally fetches for her parents the male child, the son-in-law. Few cultures have such complex arrangements for pampering the son-in-law as Bengal does. The overindulgence of the girl child is a way of creating her as a bait for a good catch”of a boy; there are dreams around the son-in-law among the Bengalis.
Nafisa’s mother thus dreamt of a son-in-law who she found in Sayed and Sayed was also the anuloma groom, or the preferred groom because he being a parallel cousin. But she saw Nafisa dragging her feet on consent because she wanted to be free of marriage before she eventually started earning on her own, the mother arranged for her to be molested and raped by the fiance. Unable to bear the agony of the unwanted sexual attempts on her, Nafisa fled. I sewed up this story through logical inference and instructed her mother to immediately send Sayed packing off back to Mumbai. The mother agreed to do so but all the following phones were made to me by Sayed. He simply ignored my instructions.
Soon the weekend was over and Sayed sent me on WhatsApp the details of the conversations with Nafisa and the phone numbers from which she called. These were international numbers diverted through Latvia, and the tower was discovered to be somewhere around Siliguri. The poorer families in India are far more tech savvy than we, the entrenched middle class are; digital technology seems to have created a new skill which is now almost exclusive to the hitherto less endowed sections of the society. With this new skill, I do see a welcome equalizing force in the society. Armed with the Internet, the smart phone, access to social media and exposure to the television, the apparent class markers have now become disguised into homogeneity. It is no longer possible to distinguish among the social classes through the way they look, speak, walk or even eat. But what the lower classes can neither imitate or internalize are the values that have marked the upper and the lower segments of the middle class.
Nafisa says that she wanted to be me because he mother admires me so much. I am not married, earn my own living, live in my own flat, drive my own car, take no money from my parents and yet support my family. Yet, her mother is willing to do nothing for Nafisa to be really be me. She is not allowed to focus on her career, and instead thrust into marriage and her will is sought be to curtailed through a sponsored rape. Her mother denies her the crucial stuff that my parents gave me, namely freedom and faith. Nafisa has appealed through her Latvian numbers that he parents need to repose faith on her, agree to believe her and above all, accept her desire not to enter into sex. But her mother wants her to have sex with the fiance because she fears that if not that boy then it will be some other boy. The thought that one can not have sex or not desire to have sex does not cross her mind. I, says the mother, am different, because she says that in my class I need not produce children but in their class, girls need to bear children. The unfreedom of women stems from the unfreedom of chosing not to have children. Then how come the mother admires me so much when I am wholly contrarian to her image of her daughter? Well, she accuses me of not seeing the point, because of my wealth I can “become”a man, but Nafisa has to become a “man”through marriage. The final aim is masculinity; I can achieve that because of the wealth of my family; Nafisa must do that by marriage and merge her identity into that of her husband’s. My job and her matrimony are steps for our respective entries to the masculine world, which is also the mainstream.
I write to Lalbazar and within an hour they take up the case; the family is called, mobiles are traced and emerges a Hindu boy in the story. The family throws a fit, the police does that as well. The family thinks that this is blasphemy but the police wants to be sure that this is not a case of trafficking. So they call the boy; Nafisa responds to the police because she does not want her friend to be harmed because of her. She calls me up as well to explain herself. I negotiate a deal. Nafisa is report to the police immediately, reveal her whereabouts to the investigating officer, ask for Sayed to be declared out of bounds and restrain her parents from forcing her into marriage. Her mother accepts the conditions, Nafisa returns. And then mayhem breaks out. The mother is annoyed because Nafisa has relished the food cooked by the Hindu boy’s mother. She fears that she might engage in sex with the Hindu boy; no not because he is a Hindu boy but because it will never be a groom arranged by her. The mother has no understanding that that a mind which is preoccupied with higher calling of education and culture, as is in this case of Nafisa, sex becomes irritating and even reprehensible.
They construe the Hindu boy to be the new boyfriend and assure that they will accept him in place of the Muslim boy. But Nafisa has no plans of marriage at all; the family has no cognitive category for friendship between a boy and a girl which may be asexual. The lower the class is, the greater the need for sex, the greater is the need for sexual realization for greater is the need for survival and hence of the reproduction of the species. Monasteries, asceticism, and even the Radha Krishna like apparently adulterous love relations were means of escape from sex, especially within marriage. I wonder why preoccupation with sex and marriage and the social class has not been more studied.
I get irate phone calls from the family asking me to ask Nafisa to stay back home. I am surprised because all the while her mother insisted that she had no one from the family to help her with her daughter and that only I could help her. Yet, now that the girl has been traced, members of the extended family were negotiating with me to help them force the girl back indoors. I remind them that it was clearly laid down in the terms of negotiation that Nafisa will not stay with the family. I had made Sayed record my voice which clearly says that Nafisa will declare him to be out of bounds, restrain parents and chose a residence of her choice.
I verbally thrash her mother by calling her a cheat and a liar who not only fibbed to me about her family but is now backtracking on assurances given to her daughter. It was she who said that Sayed will be driven away, it was she who said that Nafisa could choose to stay wherever she wanted to and it was now her, who went back on her words. I threaten to report her to the police for forcing her daughter to have sex with Sayed.
The family admires me because I live in my own flat but they will not allow their daughter to live independently. There is no conflict of values around education, clothing, use of mobile phones, freedom of movement, but there is a total lack of freedom where individual choice and personal freedom is concerned.
I am concerned about Nafisa now not because her parents will eventually get her but because she may not be safe. The Hindu boy may well be a trafficker and since he was routing the calls through a Latvian network, something which is used by the ISIS. It is also possible that the Hindu boy is himself a part of the ISIS. Besides, he is socially better off than Nafisa, educationally a few notches above her and it is likely and it is so that Nafisa abides by his words. This creates the apprehension that she may be wholly in his power. He may be a good citizen but then one never knows.
My mother has sacked the caregiver. She now has another lady in place of Nafisa’s mother. My mother wants to do nothing with a woman who has been an irresponsible mother to her daughter. I have nothing to do with that family because they imitate our ways but not adopt our values; they have no sense to realize that if they want the same outcomes as we have, they must put in similar efforts. There can be no genuine education without freedom of the learner. I refrain from the social aspirations which want to look like me but have no courage of the mind to have a mind like mine. I can see that the fascist politics of extremism and intolerance emanate from this kind of behaviour.