Apeksha in Bagar
by Apeksha Mehta
Apeksha Mehta, daughter of Swati and Ajit Mehta of Antwerp, has been based at a village in Rajasthan for the last three months helping train the local youth in basic business and entrepreneurial skills.
I've always believed that men are the biggest obstacle in letting women chase their dreams and achieve success. Restrictions, rules, laws, curfews, compromise, adjustment, etc are all placed on women and they are often forced to wind around them or argue their way through them to achieve a lot of the things they have. According to me, it is futile to analyse who or what has instigated the creation of these restrictions, but instead more relevant to understand who and why, amongst many people, are these restrictions still enforced?
This thought came to me while I was at Meena's house in one of the poorer neighborhoods in Bagar. Meena is a twenty year old girl who had to leave school after her ninth grade due to insufficient funds in the family to get her through her education. Instead the family decided it was more important to educate her two older brothers through a master's degree. No shock there, seen it in movies, read it in books, apparently happens all the time. Meena, herself however, is still one of the most ambitious, talented girls I have met throughout my trip in Bagar. She, even though at home all the time, works long hours. A little before leaving school, she learned how to stitch. She stitches salwar suits, lenghas, saris, shirts, anything really. Through her small set of contacts in the neighborhood, she has started a small business of tailoring. It's a small business, with very few clients, but with her tiny, hand run sewing machine it takes almost twice as long to complete something a normal sewing machine would take. Still, all day she stitches, with that helps out at home, cooking, cleaning, takes care of her one year old niece etc. etc.
Ironically, she's the only one in the family who has any sort of 'steady' income. Her two brothers, even having studied, are struggling to find work and are bringing in very little. Her father, after giving up a great job in a nearby village, retired and without planning, carelessly used up all the retirement money. 'I'd like to take care of at least my own expenses within the family if not others' (she said to me - in hindi of course). An ambition and hope that many women in large cities wouldn't dream of doing, forget in the village.
As part of our entrepreneurship project, she was an ideal candidate to help. Not only was she keen, sharp and willing, she also had a great skill which simply had to be implemented in a business environment. First obstacle, she was not allowed to attend the business course. Although her father had warmed up to the idea of her attending these classes, her mother could not have been more opposed. The idea of Meena walking (even if we came to pick her up everyday) all the way to the class, in the heat, with no other local girls with her, was absurd. 'Kya business business ... ladkiya yeh sab nahin kadthi' (what business, girls don't do all this). I was just amazed, that despite the financial trouble her family was going through, despite the fact that she had already been running a business in the house, her mother did not even want to listen to this idea.
Fine, next time I went to visit, I suggested that I would personally come to her house, teach her the basics and help her implement the ideas to expand her clientele. If things went well in increasing awareness, we could invest in a new sewing machine and from there increase productivity. Again, her dad seemed to think it was a good idea. Mom, however, still wouldn't hear it. 'What will happen if people find out she is running a business here??? This is not appropriate for girls to do! People cannot find out all over town that she is stitching for others'. Why is it that 'others' and 'people' always matter so much? Here Meena was, the only earning member of the house and still her mother did not understand the unique qualities she possessed. Instead she was trying to hide these qualities and suppress her potential, in attempt to conform with the rest. What she didn't realise is that their situation was fundamentally much too unique to conform anyway.
It really made me wonder ... who really poses as the obstacle against women these days? Isn't it usually women themselves? Ekta Kapoor wasn't a complete fool when creating the K series episodes filled with women drama, that admittedly are over exaggerated and often mindless but may actually have been inspired by some truth. It also made me think of myself and the fact that I am actually in Bagar, this rural village in the middle of 50 degrees of heat in Rajasthan. Would I have been here if the decision was going to be taken only by the female members of my family...? I don't think so. It is still difficult for them to really understand what in the world I'm trying to achieve by living in basic conditions, in the extreme heat, in the middle of a desert with random villagers. Admittedly, it's difficult for anyone to understand. Although, if it wasn't for the male members who were part of the decision making process, I probably wouldn't have been here. Historically, it may have been the male that suppressed women. Recently however, it seems that women themselves, directly or indirectly, restrain their own kind.
Unfortunately, Meena's mother won, just like all women do in Ekta Kapoor's dramas. The feeling of guilt is left with me for showing this lovely, talented girl a short glimpse of success, raising her hopes to a better life, but not being able to help her achieve it.
Apeksha has shared more of her experiences in a rural setting at http://apekshamehta.blogspot.com/. Responses to her writings can be posted on the blog.
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