In 1988, three sisters, Poonam 22, Kamini, 20 and Alka Sahu, 18 committed suicide by hanging themselves in their house in Coolie Bazar, Kanpur, while their parents were away at a wedding. Their suicide note gave no reason, only asked for their parents’ forgiveness. They had led restricted lives, going out only to college. The eldest wasn’t allowed to do her B Ed because Kanpur’s only B Ed college was co-educational. As was reported, the parents were terribly anxious about their daughters’ marriages. Their father earned Rs 4000 a month, and the average dowry for each daughter at the time, would have been Rs 50-70,000. Extended family had begun to greet the three girls, and their two younger sisters with remarks of “aa gayi paanch deviyan” a taunt about their still being a ‘bojh’ on their parents. In desperation, the parents had begun approaching boys much less suitable, less educated, but couldn’t find find a family that did not want dowry.
Illustration / Amit Bandre
The father admitted that his eldest daughter had requested him to stop looking for a match, that being married was not necessary to her. But it was inconceivable to hold your head up in the community with unmarried daughters.
The image of the three girls, thin, unbearably young faces, hanging from ceiling fans, became iconic of what it meant to be a woman in India: that somehow the onus of honour, good fortune and family peace of mind was on you. No matter what the world does, you must strive all the time to be blameless. If you aren’t married, well there must be “ladki mein kuch khot.” Just a little taunt, every day, just the familiar, dreaded sound of pensive parental sighs, can add up to a heavy heart, too heavy to carry for too long.
Things have changed a little now, haven’t they? Sure. After all, Nikita Duhan and her friend Madhu, the two young friends from Rohtak who killed themselves last week by mixing poison in a mango drink, went to a coaching class that would help them study further, maybe even try to go abroad to study and their parents shared this dream. In their suicide notes they proclaimed their innocence, said they had done nothing that should cause their families shame. Why? Boys followed them around and sexually harassed (eve-teased as some would say) them and they feared people would suggest they had done something to invite this. It’s as if you must pay for every freedom by being relatively invisible. Just the fear of an implication is enough to hold your breath, so much, that breathing does not seem to be possible anymore.
In 2001, I interviewed some girls from a college in Faridabad who said the college boys harassed them daily, followed them and sometimes became physically aggressive. But they did not dare complain. “Our parents will say, we told you not to go to this co-ed college. It’s better you sit at home.” The boys told me, “Well, sure girls should progress. But when they become Un-limited, don’t stay in their limits, why blame boys if something happens?” The teachers of the college told me, “A girl can have freedom, as long as she ensures that no one points a finger at her.”
The Sahu sisters of Kanpur, the young friends from Rohtak, ensured that no fingers were pointed. They ensured that they led a blameless life, by ending it.
Decades separate the stories, and yes, some things have changed. But misogyny’s tiny knives stay sharp enough to carve jagged limits around girls’ freedoms, sharp enough to make their deep, daily wounds.
Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at www.parodevi.com.
The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper.