Thursday, July 10, 2014

I Have A Question

As a mother of two, I had a lot of 'why,' 'but why,' 'how,' 'when,' 'where,' 'what,' coming at me, and at work there was no respite; I was a teacher. I faced a barrage of questions on a daily basis and not all of them were related to academics. Add to those the ones I asked myself on a daily basis. My replies were mostly direct answers to the question, but there were the occasional evasive, vague answers that weren't outright lies but definitely skirted the truth. There were the silent answers, the ones that come from a piercing stare or a blank one and some were convoluted explanations. There were also the "I don't know now but I'll let you know," frank admissions.


Questions need answers and not every answer is satisfactory or enlightening. People might say: "give me an honest answer," but often an honest answer is not what they want to hear or it might be they are not quite mature to understand the truth. And then there are questions that we don't answer because to do so would be more painful for us than for the questioner.


This brings to mind some situations which occurred and raised many questions in my mind.


Way back in early 2000, I was a member of a well known NGO, and also a member on one of their boards. It dealt with urban development: the development of street kids and women and children in the slums of the city. One of the things the NGO undertook was rescuing women and girls from brothels and from domestic sexual abuse. They had a shelter where these rescued girls and women were brought to, but the longest period of an individual's stay was fourteen days. After that, if their families didn't accept them, or the NGO couldn't rehabilitate them into society through jobs and secure boarding-lodging, they were removed to government shelters where, sad to say, their fate was no better than their previous life.

One day one of the women who had been rescued from a brothel asked to meet us. She was one of those who could not get a job. One of the board members had assured the woman that she would find her a job as a domestic help. Unfortunately, the board member's efforts bore no fruit. When the woman came in, the member spoke to her and apologized profusely. 

The woman heard her out and then said: "Madam, tum mujhe kaamwali rakh lo apne ghar mein." (madam, you employ me as a domestic help in your house)

The lady was taken aback but she had to reply. We were the benevolent group who rescued women from abuse and here was one of those unfortunate ones asking one of us to employ her. And it was obvious the woman was waiting for a reply.

"Mere ghar mein already kaamwali hai, nahin toh main zaroor rakh leti." (I have a domestic help already, otherwise I would have definitely kept you)

If we thought that explained everything and closed the conversation, we were wrong. The woman wasn't in the mood to let go.

"Jo aurat tumhare ghar mein hai, usko kahin aur bhi naukari mil jayegi. Kaamwali ka bahut demand hai. Usko jaane do na. Mere ko rakh lo." (the woman working in your house will get another job. There's a big demand for help. Let her go and keep me)

The lady member was cornered. We all turned to look at her, wondering what she would say. The silence and discomfort was so heavy it was palpable. One of the ladies came to her rescue and explained to the woman that it would not be a practical thing to do.

"Mere ko wahan se nikala kya woh theek tha?" she said wagging a finger at the lady. "Mai kamati thi, khati thi. Ab mere ko naukari nahin, paisa nahi. Yahan rehene ko nahin. Yahan mai theek hun, koi khatra nahin. Par tum log yahan se bhi nikal rahi ho. Jahan bhejti ho wahan bhi mera wahi hoga jo pehle ho raha tha. Kya achha kiya tum madam log ne. Mere ko bachaya bola. Ek se bachaya, doosre ko phenk diya." (You took me out of there, was that right? I was earning, eating. Now I have no job, no money. I can't stay here. I am fine here. I have nothing to fear. But you are sending out from here. Where you are sending me my fate will be the same as before. What good did you do? You claim to have saved me. You saved me from one and throw me to another)


Then randomly she singled me out, and directing her question to me asked: "Kyun madam, tum mere ko rakhlo." (Why don't you keep me madam?) I shook my head and she let out a raucous laugh.


"Ek last sawal puchegi tum madam log se. Mere ko kyun nahin kaamwali rakhti ho apne ghar mein? Doosre log se bolti ho isko rakho, lekin apne ghar mein nahin. Kyun madam?" 
(I'll ask one last question. Why don't you keep me as a domestic help in your homes? You ask others to employ me but you won't employ me. Why madam?)


And she turned on her heel and walked out.


Immediately the members began defending and justifying their stand to each other. It didn't matter to any one in the room what the other said. The person to whom it mattered had left the room.


                                                                    **** 


And more recently I was asked one of these don't-want-to-answer type of questions by the nanny (domestic help) I was watching an old Hindi movie and Helen was doing a cabaret. The conversation veered to this type of professional dancing in India and if it was a popular profession. I told her that these kind of dancers are not considered respectable by Indian society and so it wasn't a chosen profession by 'respectable' girls. She was appalled! 

"We have so many dancers here. I know a girl who is a pole dancer. These girls are just doing a job. Our society doesn't look down on them. It is their livelihood," she informed me.

"But there are so many other jobs they could do," I countered lamely.

"But what if they don't get any other job? What if they are single mothers? It is possible they are not educated enough, or can't do any other work. Many jobs have long hours and very low pay. How will she support herself and her child?"

I couldn't argue with that and honestly didn't want to either. Instead I spoke about social taboos, and then summed it up with the 'every society has its own values and social norms' excuse. It was good, I said, that her society believed in the dignity of labor to that extent. Ours, unfortunately, didn't even believe in the dignity of labor. She didn't quite get that and I didn't elaborate. I couldn't bring myself to tell her that as a domestic help in her country she enjoyed better pay, respect, and many liberties in her employer's home than her counterparts in India. She shook her head in disapproval. Then she said: "I have a question." I told her to go ahead and ask.

She walked over to where I was sitting and looking directly at me said, "I can understand that customs, traditions are different. But I am asking you if you too think these women are not respectable? Do you think that doing a pole dance in a bar is a bad thing?"

"Put in the situation you described, I don't think I do."

I thought it was over but I had another think coming.

 "Would you be friends with a pole dancer in your country?" She waited for an answer.

I was thinking hard; trying to choose my words; frame my sentences in a way that wouldn't hurt her sensibilities. But I guess what I was really doing was trying to find a way to wiggle out of answering that. She didn't shift her gaze and waited patiently. I knew I had to say something. So I countered with another question.

"If you treated your dancer friend the way she would be treated by society in India, how would it be?"

Her answer was prompt. She said she could never do that. I prodded her. Why couldn't she do that?

"I would be treated badly by everyone if I did. Even my children would be annoyed with me. I would be ostracized"

"Well, senora, that's exactly why I would not be able to be friends with a pole dancer in my country." I was glad she didn't ask if I would befriend one in her country!

I managed to get out of that one by making society the villain.

                                                                   
                                                                   ***


But Q&As can be fun too...and some on hindsight. 


The most amusing Q&As were the ones that transpired between Mummy and I. As a kid, and a rather tomboyish one who got into all kinds of scraps and fights, I faced a lot of questions. I dreaded the questions my mother would ask. Not because I was scared, but because it was tedious. I found her questions wrong; she found my answers false!  She'd see a bruise or a wound and along with the first aid the questions would start. Here's an example of one of our question-answer dialogues after I took on an older boy who was in a fight with my brother. I was not invited to the fight, I just jumped in!

"Who did you fight with?"

"No one. Someone fought with me."

"Don't lie to me, you must have hit first."

"Hmm...I did hit him first, but I didn't start the fight."

"If you struck first you started the fight."

"Why do you say that?" It was my turn to ask.

"Why else would someone fight with you? You hit a person, the person will retaliate."

It didn't make sense to me.

"Why would I hit someone just like that? There has to be a reason for me to fight."

"Why do you have to fight? You play with your brother's friends and act like a boy." I didn't get an answer to my question and the entire conversation went off-course.

"Boys also don't fight without a reason. And I didn't start the fight." I emphasized.

"Stop lying. You know what happens to children who lie?"

"Yes, they get punished by their parents and by God also."

"So say 'sorry' now."

"To whom? I am not lying."

"But you fought, yes? That is also wrong. So say 'sorry."

"Ok, sorry mummy."

"Good girl.

"Mummy, what is 'retaliate'?"

"It means to fight back. To give tit for tat."

"That's what I did," I said triumphantly.

She gave me a look and I ran off.

My conversations with mummy were always like this and even when I grew older I still couldn't get her logic. But I enjoyed sparring with her, and I'm sure she did too!


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