By Joyeeta Dey
For the past six months I’ve been doing a series on Facebook with the hashtag ‘fieldworkstories’, drawing on my fleeting interactions with girls mostly from rural West Bengal. Because outside of the tunnel-vision of infrastructure, learning levels and drop-outs that my work requires me to look at, people in all their whimsical, political and inspirational glory jump out at me, wreaking some irrevocable change in my ways of seeing.
1. As a work-in-progress feminist, I often side with railing against the cult of ‘likability’. Loud mouthed? Bossy? Selfish? Hello best friends, known and unknown.
Yet professionally, which for me sometimes involves going out into government schools to discuss their lives and experiences with students, there are enough times when I’m heartily, viciously cribbing with everybody about ‘annoying girls’ who keep upsetting our plans by giving no answers. Feisty and expressive we are only too glad to celebrate, especially since they serve our ends so perfectly by providing eminently quote-worthy sound bites, but the seemingly surly and unresponsive? The uncooperative and the hopelessly tongue-tied? How I hate their ‘I-have-better-things-to-do’ faces.
There was this one particularly exhausting time in a classroom of intractable adolescent girls where I was struggling bravely with my colleague. We proceeded to take a ‘different’ tack and talk playfully about irrelevant things, expecting to segue eventually into ‘serious questions’.
Hoping to ingratiate myself with them – “Isn’t school just the worrrrst?, haha…”, I trailed off lamely, “I used to HATE chemistry! What about you?”
Then decided to take a more direct approach- “Don’t worry about talking to us! You can say whatever you feel like! We’re just like you!”
They didn’t care. “Discuss amongst yourselves and one of you share what was said?” we pleaded. “Write it down, why don’t you write it down?” as last ditch. When we finally decided to step out for a moment to re-strategise, we heard them suddenly burst into a clamour of rushed conversation behind us.
Their class teacher waiting outside nodded sympathetically at us. Yes, she understood, she said. It was always like pulling teeth. They just refused to participate in class too.
“Why do you think?”
“They’re just like that.”
“Could they be shy?”
“I mean… yeah, they speak a slightly ridiculous dialect, so they might be afraid of exposing themselves.”
So my colleague and I walked back in with an unspoken agreement and brought up the fact of language straight up. Pink-eared with earnestness we tried signalling the warm and expansive generosity of our natures, our immoderate love for linguistic diversity.
“Speak just as you do at home! We’re so interested!”, but they only giggled relentlessly. Some embarrassed, some contemptuous.
Walking up to my notebook on the teacher’s desk, I shut it with a sense of finality and the taste of defeat in my mouth.
“Okay…so I guess you should go for lunch now then…hope it’s good lunch, since we made you late for it.”
“Oh but it’s very bad. No, some days it’s good but they serve too little rice,” one girl suddenly said, shocking me with the fullness of a sentence.
“And they’re always late with serving it. It’s at 3 o’clock often,” another chimed in.
“Even the dress they give from school tears near the stitches,” said the girl who I’d been prodding unsuccessfully all this while to talk about her daily bicycle trip from far up in the hill to the school. Except, unlike to my question, she had done this before – discussing the quality of food and clothes. She had the words for it.
They filed out, and the boys jostled in with their thumbs hooked into schoolbag-straps, full of queries, excited to participate. In the now-empty side of the classroom my eyes fell on the desks with neat unbroken rows of carefully folded textbook-laden polythene bags. Boldly emblazoned over them are – Oreo, Kohinoor Rice and Garbage Subsidizes our Daughters.
2.”Meyeder porashona kora beshi joruri,” (It’s more important for girls to study), a 16-year-old with a severe plait and a tutored air was telling me. “Tai? Keno?” (Really? Why?) “Na shongshar chalatey hobey… bacchader porashona – (We have to run our family, teach our children) when she was hastily cut off by her classmate: “Dhur shongshar! Desh chalatey hobey toh. Chalachey na Mamata Banerjee?“(Family?! We’ll have to run the country! Isn’t Mamata Banerjee doing that?), she said, impatiently, plumply, arms akimbo. I was told she’s a ‘serious student’. Been ‘allowed’ to study science. “Ei, tui yojanar taka diye ki korli?” (What did you do with the money from the goverment scheme?) “Dess kinechi” (bought a dress), with a grin wicked enough to make my day.
3. Sitting on straw mats laid out under a tree, I was scrunch-faced attempting to decipher the thick accented complaints against neighbours/ dowry seeking grooms/ the government. Suddenly, in a moment of crystal communication, a young woman raised her chin and one eyebrow meaningfully at me. Without missing a beat, I adjusted my kurta and continued listening. We all know the ancient language of your-bra-strap-is-showing. The censorious sisterhood follows us where we go.
4. I’ve turned 25 now, but a single, very specific idea of ideal adult life that had caught my imagination at 11 refuses to let go. Frankly uncosmopolitan, with a room on a roof the size of a train compartment, a window that cannot shut for the creeper stem, rain that trickles in through that gap and wets the side of the bed, over-fried street food that ruins digestion, dusk-time soul-loneliness and the sudden, overwhelming beauty of friends. (Ruskin Bond, All pages.) Other people’s Facebook timelines of course chip away at all (assisted) personal visions, giving me sharp stabs of greed and confusion. Oh I want to be wearing that picturesque bandanna and hiking those pale mountains too, what is that food from a country I suspect I haven’t heard of, the classes you take sound nice.
Warm conviction comes at odd moments, when it’s late in the evening — bordering on night — I’m somewhere far from home waiting for a bus. Behind me, Manisha Koirala’s smile lights up a small television in the travel agent’s three-walled shack, charming even mosquitoes. The only other girl there is from that small town — her backpack, her haircut, her freedom, all looking less faded than mine.
5. Sitting on the floor with a terrified, incredibly tiny human being, I kept shouting – “Gole! gole banaana aata hai aapko?” *more terrified silence* so, to illustrate, I confidently drew a shape on the paper which resembled a squashed mango. With the pencil that I stuffed into her small palm she quietly drew an exquisite circle freehand and burst into tears. “Can draw a circle,” I noted, affecting competence and superiority.
6. There is a store by the office where I buy my ‘energy fix’ (sic) of a Coca Cola. A large flower patterned sleeveless frock housing a little, fair-haired, brown girl walked up as I was waiting. She thrust her hand up so the top of the Rs 10 rupee note she was clutching showed over the counter. Smiling face upwards, balancing on her toes like a ballerina, she asked – “O dadu. Khoini* hobey?” (*chewing tobacco)
Joyeeta Dey works as a researcher at Pratichi Institute.