Excerpts from a conversation between Janki, her husband, Chandra Pal, and Tehelka’s Virendra Nath Bhatt
Q.1 What made you defy the family’s norm of staying at home as a housewife?
Janki: I knew I was doing forced labour the entire day: cooking, looking after cattle, fetching water from the wells and other domestic chores. It’s not that I’m against housekeeping, but I’d always wanted to study, get a high school certificate at least. But my in-laws and my husband argued it was against the tradition for married women to venture out of their homes. The village elders were also against it.
Q.2 But you still did it in spite of the hostilities. How?
I decided to move out of the house. I knew I would never get anything in return for my forced labour, and more importantly, that my daughter’s life would be ruined too. Initially, my husband was opposed to the decision, but reluctantly agreed. For many years, we lived in our own, thatched house. I took up a job as an assistant in the village Angaanwadi Center (Integrated Child Welfare Scheme) that paid me Rs 200 a month. Soon, I enrolled in the village school, where a teacher helped me pursue my studies. On finishing high school, I was promoted to a ‘worker’ in the Angaanwadi. Today, I earn Rs 3,000 per month.
Q. 3 Did your husband support you, eventually?
“Unko hamara ghar se baahar jana bilkul bhi pasand nahi thaa aur aaj bhee nahee hai, lekin ab lagbhag maan gaye hain.” (My husband hated my going out of the house. He still hates it, but now I think he may have reconciled with the idea). My husband was against my decision of working in the Angaanwadi, and social service for the illiterate Dalit women of the village. There was a lot of domestic violence; he beat me almost daily as soon as I returned home. And God forbid if I returned late. But I put up with everything for the sake of my daughter.
Chandra Pal: I work as a casual labourer in Lucknow, but my friends and the villagers still taunt me that I live on my wife’s earnings. Is aurat ne to mera jeena dubhar kar diya tha, gaon mein hamari naak katwaa di. Is ke kaaran maa-baap se alag hona pada. Aurat kaa kaam ghar ki dekhbhaal karnaa aur bacchae paalnaa hai lekin ye to ghar mein ruktee hee nahi. (This women had made my life hell; I had to suffer insults and humiliation in the village. I had to separate from my parents because of her. A woman’s job is to look after the kids and the household. But this one can’t seem to stay indoors.
Janki: When I depend only on the income of my husband, why should I stay with the in-laws, and work there as a domestic servant?
Q.4 How did things improve after you started working?
Janki: In 1995, Chandra Pal used to earn Rs 35 in a day. That wasn’t enough for the three of us, or for our daughter’s education. My job provided for my daughter’s education. She is now a graduate with a B.Ed degree, soon to be appointed as a teacher in a government school. Her wedding was a grand affair, seen never before in any Dalit house in the village. Because of my efforts, we are living in a puccaa house with all modern amenities.
Q.5 How are you helping other underprivileged women now?
Janki: I am busy setting up a Self Help Group (SHG) in the village. We have set up three SHGs with 15 members each so far, three more are yet to come up. One SHG recently qualified for the Cash Credit Limit (CCL) from the bank. Each member will now be sanctioned a CCL of Rs 20,000 and a local NGO is helping us set up small businesses like sewing, weaving and Chikan-print garments.