Thirteen years ago, when Prabha Devi of Indi village (in Tehri district of Uttarakhand) lost her husband in an accident, she was only 34.
Her relatives, with the understandable callousness of the very poor, chose to turn away from this young widow with three young daughters and an old—and blind—father-in-law to support. Left all alone with no savings or assets, Prabha had to decide and decide fast on how to keep hunger at bay.
She finally chose to throw all taboos out of the window, picked up the bag containing her husband’s tools of trade, and became the first female barber in the area.
“I could not stand the pain of hearing my children cry for food, day after day,” Devi told the villagers.
Faced with a determined young mother in search of a job, people in India usually ask, angrily, “Why?” The village elders of Indi were no exception. They were also unhappy with Devi’s decision as she wished to handle what had always been a man’s job in their village. But, even as they expressed their frank disapproval, they also sympathized with her as only the poor and the asset less can, with those who are even more helpless.
They finally decided that unless they could, like good neighbours, provide food and money for the indigent family, they had little moral right to demand a sacrifice in the name of tradition. So, they looked the other way as Devi began her trade. Soon, she came to be accepted as a skilful barber and villagers started going to her for their customary hair cuts and shaves.
But, a problem now arose over payments. Since the villagers considered it demeaning to pay cash to a woman of their own village, they chose to pay her in kind. Their logic was, that the family would at least be guaranteed regular meals.
But, families do not live by bread alone. Devi, who wished to send her daughters to school, offered and was allowed to carry out other traditional chores performed by barbers all over India for a fee. This included distributing invitations for functions connected with births, deaths, marriages, and sacred-thread ceremonies in the surrounding villages, massaging neonates and handling brides’ traditional toilette.
This generated the much-needed cash. A little later, Devi also began to cultivate her tiny farm. As income from various sources grew, she began sending her daughters to school so they would not miss out on education.
Today, the daughters are all married and Devi is one of the most respected members of her community whom the villagers seek out when they are in trouble.
Devi’s story challenges the stereotypical, if not sexist picture most of us have, of the Dalit widow in rural India. For one, it shows that rural societies are not prisons where everyone is locked into a traditional role, based on caste and gender. They are living, breathing organisms who care for their own. Here, tradition may often be quietly tweaked when it is a question of sheer survival. It also proves that socialization does not always determine the reactions of human beings. If it did, no tradition or behavioural pattern in society could ever be challenged. True, caste and gender hierarchies are constituted by an intricate process of objectification of women, but the story of Devi is evidence that the objectified may not always turn into “things” who sit passively on the sidelines, forever resigned to their lot.
And, Devi is not the only one. We also have Bhanwari Devi, the village worker who was raped for daring to oppose illegal child marriages and who fought on. Then there is Irom Sharmila on a fast unto death in protest against a detested law in Assam. The fact is that despite the enormous forces ranged against them, women in our villages are not flat objects with no will of their own. They are capable of making radical choices and working things out by negotiating each advantage when they must. In time, a string of such adjustments begins to affect and revolutionize the way several other needs are perceived and met by women.
In the case of Devi, the act of asserting her right to work outside her home and earn an honourable living, made her realize that to survive with dignity, it was also essential to take on forces other than tradition.
Once, there was an urgent need to stop the local timber mafia from felling trees illegally. Village ponds and springs were fast disappearing, spelling doom for the crops and leading to tedious treks to far off water sources. So, Devi led her fellow villagers to the forest department and asked the officials to throw the timber thieves out. When her demand for justice made no difference, she convinced the villagers to take things into their own hands. So, they came out on the roads and managed to stop and unload several trucks carrying timber from the area illegally.
Her daughters are a little fearful about their mother’s activism. They feel that the timber mafia is strong and will not hesitate to harm their mother. But, Devi remains undaunted. She told us that she is not afraid of the corrupt officials or the timber thieves as long as the villagers are with her.
To be sure, at the moment the dice appears to be loaded against the poor. They are barred from entering and collecting forest produce or challenging the timber mafia who may hoodwink the same law with impunity. But, this does not mean that villagers such as Devi will be reconciled to being playthings of ineluctable forces. The asymmetry of power, as Devi has realized, is man-made and, as such, totally capable of being subverted by men and, of course, women.