Dipali, a spirited Shiksharth employee, took me on my first ride around Sukma’s villages. I had heard of her story—how she had to go through an abusive marriage and subsequent divorce that left her broken at the tender age of 20. But to see her in the flesh, I could have never guessed what she had recently experienced. I mean, who can? We all seem fine until someone else decides we aren’t and thinks they can “fix” us. My intent to work for Shiksharth (or any other organization) was never to “fix” things. Nobody needs anyone’s validation, what they need is support, encouragement, or just the ability to exist and express themselves peacefully. To be empowered.
Dipali took me to a girl’s porta cabin and honestly did not know what to expect. I was greeted by a spirited “Good Afternoon”. Curious faces looked at me with as many questions as I had for them. After an introduction, I asked the girls if I could ask them some questions and if we could talk about menstruation practices and some taboos that they feel should be done with. Barring a few students, none of them spoke. I was not really there on a clock but they were. Eventually, they would have to go about their day and other classes. When I asked them why everyone wasn’t comfortable sharing, one of them spoke, “If you get to ask us questions, don’t we get to ask you some?”. Of course, they did! It was only fair. I was looking at this from the lens of giving words to their story when they were not only capable of telling it on their own but also finding more stories. “How old are you? Are you married? Do you love what you do? Why? Do you love your husband? How do you know what you love and what you don’t? How are you so fair? How has been your experience going through your periods over the years? Do you like living in the USA? Do you think the USA is better than India, better than Sukma? Why? Do you have children? Why not? Do you love children?”
Now, I have heard some of these questions over the years from all the aunties and uncles at a wedding. I still get asked “Why don’t you have a child?” question. And nothing offends me more than the judgement in these questions. It makes me feel that they come from a space of “We know better and this life is better”. It makes me extremely uncomfortable. But here, I knew the inquisitive minds who were asking me these questions wanted to get to know a fresh perspective. That of someone they had just met. They just wanted to know my story, like I wanted to know theirs. In that moment I realized that their stories were a reflection of a fresh perspective. A wonderful take on looking at things.
We finished the discussion with a song from some of the students. But they didn’t let me be an audience. They asked me to sing as well….it was only fair. Amidst the beautiful minds and supposedly uncomfortable questions, we uncovered stories for a lifetime. I learnt a valuable lesson- to enable doesn’t mean to impose what you think is right. It is to welcome a perspective and question it, nurture it, brainstorm on it and above all, provide a safe space from it to happen. And that is what we at Shiksharth intend to do.