Monday, August 15, 2005

Double minority

That’s what I refer to them as when I write out project proposals for funding. Even though they are the original inhabitants of our land. Even though they step lightly on the earth that sustains them, giving back much more to the soil than we can ever hope to. Even though they work twice as hard as the men, yet settle for half their due.

Though being a woman in a marginalised community is gruelling, they bear the burden lightly. As they have seen their mothers and their mothers’ mothers do. Even though they are the ones who sustain the tribal community, they remain doubly disadvantaged.

Working with adivasi women has changed the way I see myself. The way I react to situations. The way I see choices that are available to some and not to others. The way I look at the rest of the world that has left these people behind.
But spend some time with the adivasi women and you learn how to smile at a sunset even when there’s nothing to eat but boiled rice and salt. Even when people are dying of treatable diseases like malaria. Even when starvation deaths are so real you saw the evidence being carried out on a wooden plank just this morning. Even when the next day gives you nothing to look forward to. There are big smiles for all the small things.

We’d squat near wood fires, wrap shawls around ourselves and sip chai at sunrise. We’d go for walks, wade through streams and shout out a warnings to the rest if a snake was sighted. We’d hold hands and climb hills, the rest of the troupe waiting impatiently for me to clamber up a steep slope despite the grips on my sports sandals.
I’d struggle to understand the exact meaning of their stories because to miss out on something would be nothing less than criminal. We’d sit in silence when clumsily translated words failed us. Which was often.

These women wear their wealth. And don’t hesitate to exchange a gold nose ring for the sake of their family. These women, when gifted a new sari, tear off the aanchal and wrap it around their daughters. These women are granted a bride price when they marry and move to their husband’s village. For adivasis know that another pair of hands in the household is something to be grateful for.

We’d count the earrings we had on, me with six and them with much more.
Once, a woman pointed to my lopsided piercings- four on one ear and two on the other- and asked why they were uneven. I couldn’t explain that I had started out with the customary one in each ear, then two, after which I became partial to my left side. Struggling for an appropriate answer, I shrugged my shoulders and offered a simple, ‘Style?’
‘Oho…Tylee,’ she repeated, nodding as she held my face in her hands.
She totally understood.

They asked if I wanted any more. I pushed aside my sari drape and showed them my belly ring. The first time they saw it, a younger girl explained to her grandmother that it was the custom in the village I came from. I nodded solemnly.

Then smiled.