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Unequal halves: a story of broken barriers

Yang meets Yin

Secured men don’t control women

Shatri (Me): I must get back to the village before the sun sets. It’s an ordeal walking 12 miles into the fields and back roads filled with overgrown weeds and muck. Crossing the river will be another task! But baba will be home soon and I have to get to the site exit without the site manager noticing me.

Dhar: How will you go? You haven’t changed into your ladies’ outfit yet. You’re still wearing the site uniform and if that Rajan catches you, it will be the end of your story!

Shatri: I must head home. I’ll find a way to change. Don’t worry. Thanks for all your help in hiding my identity and letting me work at the site as a man would.

After two decades and four vote cycles, Dhanbargh was finally witnessing the construction of its first ever manufacturing mill. Being a farming first region, Dhanbargh was the last priority of the government and of industrialists. However, during the last election, the government had promised, in a desperate measure, to develop the village in return for votes.

We didn’t have much choice. We put our faith in the votes and it was like God answered hungry stomach prayers so here it was — The first manufacturing mill of cane wood décor in the backward village of Dhanbargh, Bihar.

A few months ago, before the construction began, the village Shudras were excited about earning daily wages from the construction work. It was a relief to many backward classes in the backdrop of Rajputians who ruled the region.

“Sukha hamar roti, sukha hamar shahar, sukhai hi hamar jindagi, sukhai hi hamar nazar…” singing the painful notes form our village backyards, I murmured the song as I cautiously led my way back home. It was getting dark and I muttered a silent thank you to God for Rajan not noticing me gone. He was the real asshole. The chauvinist. The village leader and oppressor of women. The villagers were tired of him but nobody uttered a word against his sword. He was the reason I had changed my identity into a man and was working the bricks on site.

I laughed a little with pride as I walked through the fields blindly. I mean it was so easy to disguise myself as a man. I was flat from starving most days and fortunately I had inherited baba’s looks being the first child of the ten more in our family. I hid my long mane successfully with a helmet everyday and climbed rises to place bricks which I would, otherwise not have a chance to do if anyone in the village found out I was a woman.

Oppression of women in Bihar is an open ended story. The world knows we women are at the mercy of men. Our only duty is to take care of the hut and children. Get raped in the fields and in our marriages. Village thugs like Rajan lived off vulnerable souls like us and continue to silence us in every way.

I was still two miles away from home and calmly folded my salwar to cross the river. I skipped stones and gently lit up at the sound of the small waves crashing in the water. My working as a man at the site was a slap on every Rajan’s face in the world. Those that think women are their subordinates. That we can’t equal them. Gender inequality at its foundation is found in villages like ours where we have to justify our right to live literally to demand work for wages.

But this was going to end. Women in my village would be able to work. I would start the trend. My passing of as Sharad was the first step. In a few days the work would be over and I would present myself to our boss as who I really was and show him proof of my capability to continue working for future projects too.

I clamped down the entry gate to our small hut and reached home in time to help mai with the dinner. Baba luckily was late today and I sighed a breath of relief.

Mai: You know what you’re doing is dangerous. Passing off as a man in our village?! Who does that? If baba finds out he will slit our throats!

Me: Nothing will happen to us mai. Have faith in your daughter. This will soon end and open doors for women in our village to work for wages.

That moment baba walked in and demanded my younger brother Dil to press his legs before dinner. After some time our family of twelve sat in the verandah for sukha roti and pyaaz with mirchi achaar.

The next day I waited for baba to wander off into the fields before I made a head way to the site. I almost ran most of the way before the sun would come up. Dhar was waiting with the uniform and helmet. As I started changing into my uniform, I heard a knock on the door of amenities which had become my changing room these past three months.

I became cautious and anxiously answered the door. It was Rajan! Thank god I was fully disguised. I asked him what he wanted and he took me by the arm and said, “Tu meri jaan”! I gasped!

Rajan: I noticed a woman leaving the exit gate of the site yesterday. So I followed her into the fields. And look who I found?! You Shatri!

At that moment there was commotion on site outside. The boss had come for a surprise visit. Dhar came in just in time for Rajan to blink in exasperation. I took the opportunity and ran outside. My helmet flying out of my head and my mane flowing behind me I ran up to the boss who stepped back in surprise.

Me: Sir, my name is Shatri. I am a woman and working on your site these past three months disguised as a man. This is only because this Rajan, the village keeper won’t allow women to step out of our huts. We are a starved community of shudras. When the construction of the manufacturing mill began here, I decided to earn an earnest morsel for my starving family. Tell me, would you let me be punished at the hands of this obnoxious man or allow me to continue working for you? I have done all the work a man does around here and I am fully capable of working harder.

Boss: Calm down. Rajan call everyone from the site and gather around in the ground in five minutes.

He looked at me quizzically and made his way into the office with his staff.

Dhar and I were left gasping for breath as we saw the murderous look on Rajan’s face.

After some time all the mill workers gathered in the ground and the boss asked me to stand beside him. He asked Rajan to sit with the rest that broke the very core of his ego.

Boss: Let me begin this note by addressing very foundational issues around here. Shatri here is a woman but has done the work of a man. For that I am proud of you. Now listen everyone, including you Rajan — We as a construction firm have decided that women will be allowed to work on our site going forward. We as a firm believe, I as a man believe, that men and women are equal in every way. Back in the city at our office we practice gender equality at work and our CEO is a woman. Rajan, I want you to understand that only a secure man can empower women. You obviously lack that quality. That’s why you needed a woman like Shatri to teach you a lesson. I needed a woman like her to show a man like you that a woman who is capable of producing another human being is capable of walking the same miles back home from work as a man. Shatri has outdone herself and made me proud of working in Dhanbargh. Shatri and more women are welcome to work at our site. Rajan, one complaint against you and I will report you to city authorities.

With that the boss left and I danced on site a dance of freedom. Freedom from patriarchy, freedom from sukhi roti and freedom from the chauvinism from men like Rajan!

Word spread quickly in the village and all the women gathered on site to register themselves to work from the next day.

My baba came forward from the crowd and for the first time in my life hugged me and said, “I will not call you my son. I am happy you are my daughter and outdoing all the sons I could ever have!”

That day I returned from the exit gate of the site fully clothed as a woman and made my way back to the hut with all the pride I could muster. I looked upto the Gods in heaven and thanked them for a life transforming change in our little village of Dhabargh. Finally women would work. There would be more income in our families and no child would starve again!

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