21 years ago, when babies were born at home rather than in a hospital, my voice echoed the near-empty hallway of my grandparents’ villa. The resonating sound of my cries came along with pain-stricken screams of my mother; she had undergone a painful 8 hour of labor before giving birth to me.
Me; a girl child. Along with my cries and mother’s screams, the walls were audience to loud and harsh words, most of them directed at my mother and me. I was unwelcome and unwanted but my mother paid the price for that. Shunned by society for giving birth to a daughter and not a son. For inviting various ill omens into the family. For not being able to produce an heir for the family and for cursing the family into contemplating murder.
“Please don’t kill her. I promise I’ll raise her well. You won’t have to worry. I promise. I’ll give birth to a son next time, I promise.”
Her pleas to save me from being killed left my father paralyzed. Yes, he did love her, but he loved his parents more. Their dream of a grandson had just been tarnished but his dream of a sweet innocent girl lived. Torn between saving me and respecting his parents’ needs, he closed his eyes and made a decision.
A decision that ruined my life.
Quite surprisingly, he saved me. Girl-child deaths were pretty common in our village at that time as no one wanted us. We were a “burden”. Money sucking and life ruining insects that were a burden until we were married off. Then we are the same for our husbands and are in-laws. Irrespective of these thoughts, considered the obvious path at the time, my father protected me from being killed while I had been just minutes old; but he couldn’t protect me from my future.
The seasons passed and seemingly overnight, I was 3 years old, an elder sister to a baby boy. I was elated beyond measure. It didn’t matter that he was loved more than me by my grandparents; that he received hugs and kisses on the day he was born whereas I received death threats; for my grandparents, their grandson was their only heir. I was just someone who would leave them once I was mature. To me, he was the smile on my mother’s lips, the laughter in my grandmother’s voice, the feeling of content on my grandfather’s face and the sparkle of my father’s eyes. He was everything that I couldn’t be, and I loved him no less.
As a 5 year old girl, I was eligible to attend primary school. Like any other child, who held more questions in their mind than the number of fingers on their hands, I begged my parents to let me go. My pleas were answered positively by my parents, but it was a whole new story with my grandparents. Lost in the 20th century, while living in the 21st, they argued as to what would I do with an education while all I had to do in my life was serve my in-laws and bear sons for my husband. My education was only a waste of money, which could be used in the future for my dowry. Once again, my father surprised me. He fought against his parents, and gave me my primary school education.
This incident never repeated when my brother turned 5, instead he joined school even though he never wanted to. He was lucky that grandfather let him sit in his lap and taught him how to write, and that grandmother would explain simple maths using oranges and biscuits. I was never subjected to that love. For me, learning and homework were to be done once I had finished all my chores of cleaning the dishes and making sure the pot was filled with chilled water at all times.
It wouldn’t be entirely true to say that no one helped me, my parents did. Silently and secretly, my mother taught me how to count on my fingers and my father taught me how to spell. I passed all my classes with straight A’s and highest numbers, but then of course, when you had only 10 girl students in your class, everyone would pass with flying colors, wouldn’t they?
The years went by way too quickly for my liking, and my brother grew up too fast. It felt like it was only yesterday when I played hide and seek with him and instead of being caught by tiny fingers, I was pulled by the ear into the backside garden and beat repeatedly by my grandmother for wasting time and energy in playing while I should have been cleaning the house. I was only 10.
Stomach cramps, body aches and a bed filled with blood was how I turned 14 and it got no better. For me, my world was crashing down into the darkness of pain and hurt. My mother said “It’s okay dear, you will get used to it. You’re becoming a woman now” and my grandmother told me “Finally, you’re mature, I can tell the Pandit to search for a suitable husband for you. Do me a favor and stay away from the men of the house.” And so I did, I left my brother to do his homework alone for the first time, I didn’t hug my father as he came home from work for the first time and I certainly did not hand my grandfather his daily evening tea. I stopped praying and going to the temple, I stopped stepping into the kitchen to help my mother, I stopped school so that I could help my parents save money for my dowry, I stopped touching things in the house afraid that I might “degrade” it. Cause that’s what happened to me. My family’s worst nightmare was now reality.
On my 16th birthday, I received my first present ever. My husband. We were married for 2 months now, and the age difference between us was 7 years. He was every bit as loving as my grandmother was. He even received money when he married me; 2,000,000 Rs to be precise. I wondered then, to my father, that why must my family pay a man to marry me? Why must my self-worth be calculated in terms of money, gold and gifts to be given to the family I belong to now? Have they purchased a slave in the name of marriage? When the only answers I received were “That’s the tradition dear.” “Daughters are nothing but a burden for their fathers.” “Your father had to sell our ancestral home to get you married, you better make sure your husband is happy.” I gave up, and stepped into the new chapter of my life. Being given a roof to sleep under and two meals a day, I should have been happy with my life.
18 and still young, I was carrying my first child. At 9 months pregnant, I have been yet again doing something out of the need to make my husband’s life better. I was giving birth, so that my in-laws have an heir. I was asked to give birth to a boy. But I didn’t. My firstborn was killed because she was a girl. Because her father was nothing like my father. Because I had become the shame of the family. Because I was not worthy of the love I received from my husband. Because I deserved every beating for giving birth to a girl.
I’m 21 today, and I just gave birth to my second daughter. Again, she did not live long enough to taste my milk. She didn’t live long enough for me to see if she had my eyes or not. She didn’t live long enough to make me feel like a mother. Yet again, I’m the shame of the family, and yet again the bruises on my body are reminders that I shall not bear anymore girls.
I’m 21 today, and I’m standing on the terrace of my home, waiting for one petal of proof that being born a girl was a blessing in disguise. Waiting to be told that I am the creator and not the destroyer; that I am more than just a burden to fathers; that my body is not made to bear only sons; that I too am a lady, so why shun the birth of a girl child? But no one did.
I’m 21 today, and I jumped down into oblivion; taking myself and my own story with me. Unsaid and unheard, yet a likely life story to occur for many rural girls’ like mine.