“If we don’t get up and leave from here quickly, I will pull out my gun and start shooting," I said.

I turned to my colleague and made the gesture of drawing out a revolver from my imaginary holster. He knew what was making me so restless.

We were sitting in the veranda outside a primary health centre in a village in Kishanganj district in north Bihar. A baby had just been born inside the three-room health centre. We were here to film with and interview the auxiliary nurse and midwife, who is referred to as the ANM Didi in most parts of rural India.

Mother and child were both fine. I had asked for permission to step into the labour room and meet both of them. A beautiful newborn baby was lying sideways, wrapped in cotton sheets, on one bed. The exhausted mother was on another. A woman from the family was watching over both. There was a strange quietness around us. The baby was a girl.

In the veranda outside, we were making small talk. Men from the infant’s family, the ANM nurse, her husband and our film crew from Delhi.

“We want mithai (sweets)," said the nurse.

The father laughed half-heartedly, as if he were responding to a weak joke.

“This is a sad day for him," said the nurse’s husband.

“No," said the nurse. “People in this area do not think like this." She turned to address us.

“I don’t want to say this in front of you," said the father to the nurse, “but I feel sad and heavy in my heart."

The nurse’s husband was the most vocal. “Of course," he said, “there is no respect for girls in our society. It is only a son who will bring name and honour to the family. A girl is a liability."

I got up and went inside again. Complete silence.

“Why is the baby not crying?"

I removed the cloth covering the baby’s face. She hadn’t been cleaned properly yet. She had put her fist in her mouth and was sucking on it.

“We should hand her over to her mother," I said. “She needs to be fed."

Outside, the banter continued. The nurse was sitting with her back to her husband now. She was talking directly to our team. Her husband began to praise her work. Others added that she had indeed contributed greatly towards the well-being of women and babies in this area. She was also a writer. She had written a novel.

“My novel is titled Pratiksha," she said.

She was there. I was there. A new life was among us. Yet we were recycling the same old meaningless words that diminish women. This in response to the birth of a baby. We are dysfunctional and barbaric.

I went to the labour room for a third time. The nurse followed me inside. She handed over the baby to the mother and helped her to latch on to the breast.

You should have heard the sound of the baby suckling. She was hungry. She wanted her mother. She was going to live. And grow.

We decided to return later to film with the nurse. We went to the home of a teenager who had just enrolled in college. Her mother is illiterate and only spoke Bengali fluently. I sat particularly close to her because I expected her to be nervous about being interviewed and wanted to create a rapport of trust with her.

“Your daughter is one of the few girls from this village who are going to college…," I began.

“Is it a crime to educate your daughter?" she shot back at me before I could get anywhere near framing a question.

“You tell me," she repeated. “Is it a gunah to educate a daughter? Should I not want the best for my child? You have studied. You work. My daughter will also become someone before we begin to think of her marriage."

Tears stung my eyes.

Stereotypes smash to smithereens every day around us. We share stories of triumphs despite adversity. We pull out photos and tales of high-achieving, challenge-defying, adventure seeking women from our own family histories. What stops us from adding up the stories and looking at the bigger picture?

How is it that the world keeps changing, but our way of speaking and feeling about it doesn’t? Whose purpose does it serve? Who does it reassure?

Endlessly repeated small talk that diminishes the very existence of another person is a power game. Accepting the fruits of someone’s contribution and then dismissing their role is exploitation and abuse. It isolates individuals and plants self-doubt in them, making them feel aggressive or crazy when they confront the dissonance.

“What makes you happy?" I asked the daughter later. “What do you value the most?"

“Ilm," she answered. She looked skywards and back at me. “Knowledge and education."

Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker, media trainer and mother of three. She writes a fortnightly column on family and relationships. She tweets at @natashabadhwar and posts on Instagram as natashabadhwar.

Read Natasha’s previous Lounge columns here

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