Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Meet my beautiful students

Last week, they insisted on taming my wild blond humidity-struck locks into a respectable ponytail. They pulled and yanked and combed and oiled until it was slicked back tightly enough to clear my face of wrinkles and make me look decent enough to be out in the Indian world. Then, these lovely lovely young women pooled their jewels to beautify me. They draped me in their tarnished silver chains and gold crosses. Kiruba put her only pair of gold earrings in my ears and insisted I wear them home (it's a sin to be without gold earrings, you see). They pulled out special makeup cases and marked my third eye with red, then they debated which would be the best bindi for me. They settled on a small red teardrop. My wrists were covered in a collection of their bangles, all shades of plastic and glitter. And I was done. Adorned.

If you want to know what it feels like to be a goddess, I suspect it feels a lot like being an English teacher in a women's shelter in rural Tamil Nadu.

I have felt such joy and love with these girls. I cherish them, and what they've given me.

But there's more than wrist bangles. They've given me their stories. I hold them in my hands like broken glass. Fragile, sharp, precious, scary. We must be gentle with them. For now, I'll share just one.

We'll call her B. She is 22 and has the smallness of a 22-year-old - little shoulders that curl when you look at her directly, hands that fidget in her lap - but the eyes, the eyes of someone who has lived many more years. When B was three, her mother left the family to be with another man. Her father kept her for three years and then sold her into slavery. He was paid $120 for her. She was sent to a farm, without family, where she cleaned manure, fed and washed cattle, chopped firewood. She was beaten regularly. This lasted until she was sixteen. When she began menstruating, the farm owners threw her out. Her grandparents who, evidently, had known her circumstances all along, came to her at that time. B thought they would take her in, but instead, they dropped her off at a shelter, never to be heard from again. A heartbreak.

While B was there, at age 18, she met a man and married. It wasn't a conventional marriage; he was already married with three children, but his first wife pleaded with B to do it. She explained that she was dying of a heart disease and wanted her family taken care of. She released her husband so that he could marry B. B would later learn that the husband - we'll call him Z - had tortured his first wife into making this request. B lived with the couple and for the first six months, it was a very happy time, the happiest of her life. And then she saw "all of his faces".

He beat her viciously. He would attack her with beer bottles. He would bind her hands and feet and rape her. He scarred her with knife cuts.

He and his wife refused to feed her. The neighbours would sneak food to her when they could. After a childhood of slavery, she became their slave. They forced her to work and give them the money. The rapes resulted in two pregnancies. One day of rest was allowed for giving birth and then she was sent to work again.

After four years of escalating brutality, Z's family took B and the boys out of the home and to the shelter. Z filed a complaint with the police against her, saying she was no relation, so that he wouldn't have to pay support for the boys. When I asked if B had filed a complaint against him, she couldn't fathom why she would. There would be no point. It didn't seem as though it had even crossed her mind.

The shelter has high concrete walls all around it and barbed wire above that. The door to get in is metal with several locks. Although her location was kept secret, Z found her and last week arrived with a knife and told B he would kill her. A few days later he returned and asked if she would please come back to him. He now has four wives but B is the only one who's a decent cook, he argued.

B is a housemaid at one of the neighbour's homes. When I asked about her work and what kind of job she'd like, she said her only wish for her life was to see her sons as "graduates". She wants them to be educated. I understood, then, why she sat so timidly in class, not knowing the English words all the other girls had learned. Not feeling quite worthy. Her eldest son will be old enough for school next year. Had he been old enough today, I would have enrolled him myself. She wants to give them what she never had.

B asked again today if I would take her sons. She wants so desperately for them to have a future. This word "future" in Tamil, she pronounces with a seriousness that makes your heart heavy, knowing it is a constant thought in her mind, a weighty burden. When I asked if she wouldn't be too pained to be far apart, she said she would, but she wanted good lives for them and that outweighed all. She said what she hoped most was to give her sons to a couple here in Pondicherry who might allow her to live with them as their slave.

This is the dream of one 22-year-old girl in India. Please say a prayer for her and her sons.

Do you want to know what the miracle of today was? B left our conversation with laughter.


  1. Thanks you for sharing B's story Carrie and reminding us of our humanity.

  2. Reading your words brings back fond memories of my Peace Corps days setting up and running maternal and child care clinics in Niger, West Africa.

    Thank you for sharing your experiences. I so love your writing, Carrie!