in bihar, this is how it begins: you are born a girl. this is your first mistake. india is a country where ultrasounds that determine the sex of a fetus are illegal because, in the brief period of time when they existed, the rate of abortions skyrocketed as people ran to rid themselves of the girls they were carrying. if you are born in one of the many, many red light districts, this is your second mistake. the family you are born to is probably a ‘working’ one, that is, your mother is a prostitute, and your father may or may not be her pimp. if you are born outside of a red light district you have an advantage, but it can be easily lost. if you are of a class and caste high enough to warrant a hospital birth, you will either be swaddled and taken home, as all babies ought to be, or your legs will be opened, it will be discovered that you are a girl, and you will be discarded. your birth parents will leave the rural hospital without you. you are, after all, a girl, and it is boys who bring honour and value to the family. at this point you will most likely be adopted, or, more properly, purchased, from the doctor who delivered you. if you are lucky, and some are, a kind family will take you and raise you and love you. if you are unlucky, a ‘working’ family will buy you, because only to these families, in all of india, are girls more prized than boys, for girls, not boys, can be turned for a profit. girls, not boys, increase the value of the family.
now you live in the red light district, with a family that may or may not be your own. your father rents out your mother. your mother sees nothing wrong with this, or with bringing you up to be rented out by your future husband, or your brother, or your father. after all, her mother was a prostitute, and her mother’s mother, and many mothers going back many, many years. you are merely following in your family’s footsteps. this is your history, forward and back.
you may be fortunate enough to be put in school, either because your parents have given in to pressure by a local aid group, or because those families around you have sent their daughters, and your parents want to save face. if you are lucky, you will now go to school, and to an adolescent group, a kishori mandal, when your mother allows it, that teaches you to dance. if you are very lucky, you will be sent to a local boarding school, kasturba. if you are unlucky, you will stay at home, helping to raise your younger siblings, who may be the children of men who visit your mother, or children, as you, of utter strangers who didn’t want to take home a girl. when you can, you sneak out to come join the kishori mandal. when you are ‘old enough,’ probably around 15 or 16, you will enter the family business and get married, maybe in that order, maybe reversed. your husband will most likely be the son of a family like yours, who learned how to pimp from his father, who learned it from his. he may have practiced on his sisters, and now he rents you, his teenage wife, out for a few rupees.
if you are one of the luckiest, those at kasturba, your moment of danger this month will come when durga puja arrives. this year you will be allowed, for the first time, to return home to your family, though they live only 15 minutes’ train ride away. this is your next mistake. at the end of the week you will be expected to return, along with your classmates, to your concrete building with pink walls and wood-slat beds, where you go to school, and read, and dance. but this year your parents don’t want you to return. you don’t want to return, either; school is boring, the girls are loud, the teachers are mean. you, the luckiest, envy the unlucky ones who roam the streets after their siblings all day, washing saris in the brown gutter water, squatting over a fire to brew chai for their mothers’ ‘visitors.’ your parents have kept you home either because they want you to start paying for your self, or because they are angry at the aid group which has presumed to tell them what to do with their daughters, and they see withholding you from the group’s school as the ultimate form of punishment. they will send you back to school when they feel the aid group has groveled enough. they hold you ransom. every day you stay out of school is a loss in the fight to keep you off the streets. your parents know this; they will negotiate, they will ask for money, rides, favours. the aid group, aware that it cannot do for you anything that it can’t afford to do for all your peers, is paralyzed. your parents win either way.
if you remain lucky, you will, in fact, end up back at kasturba. there you will stay until you are 18, at which point you will be released to the world to face your life. you will probably marry soon, and become a wife and mother, but hopefully you will bear only your husband’s children, and only mother those which will be raised free. if you are extremely lucky, or very bright, or both, you may go on to higher education, to a school or a job or a city where your home is not the red light district and your daughters are not born onto an assembly line.
if you are unlucky, you will return to your parents’ home, on a muddy dirt lane with a thatched hut and chickens and a buffalo. you, too, will marry, but it will most likely be to the son of one of your mother’s coworkers, who knows, or learns, how to peddle you. and the cycle continues. ‘will the circle be unbroken, by and by, lord, by and by.’ so it is sung in a country far, far away from you.
and this is how you are made.
step, by step, by step.
live like the lotus, at home in the muddy water.