–By Madhulina Sur
Stone walls do not a prison make
Nor iron bars a cage;
Minds innocent and quiet take
That for a hermitage.
If I have freedom in my love,
And in my soul am free,
Angels alone that soar above
Enjoy such liberty. – R. Lovelace.
The village of Manoharpukur, in West Bengal is the place where little Durga lives. She is a 10year old girl who resides in a small shanty in the interiors of the village with her mother and a small brother aged 5. Her life is filled with drudgery and poverty. The income of her mother who is a domestic-help in the nearby housing complex is very meagre. The poverty of the house, the longing for her late father and the wailing of her younger brother breaks down the little girl each day.
The only ray of hope in the grim life of the child is the house of Mr. and Mrs. Paul. The Pauls, originally titled Pal, write their surname in that fashion like many other Bengalis who share the same title all over Bengal, live in the housing complex which has developed in the village in the recent years hinting at further development.
Durga goes every morning to their flat and works as a maid and comes back in the evening with her mother who works in the same building. She does the odd jobs of the household and earns rs.250 per month. Mrs. Paul’s two children are school goers and read in class 5 and 7 respectively. Sohini, who is the elder sibling, is very friendly with Durga unlike her brother Sohom, who bickers and fights at home as well as at his school. A tutor comes every weekend to teach the children at their home and Durga lends her ears attentively to the tutor while doing her chores. Durga is a keen listener. She feels she can learn the lessons more quickly than Sohom, who pays the least attention to his studies. Every morning there is a hope and desire to learn and be educated. She nurtures the dream through the day but as evening comes, the dream shatters into a thousand pieces as she enters the grim shanty only to hear the wailings of her brother, the drunkenness of the neighbourhood sleuths and the poverty in the family.
Little Durga’s dreams were bigger than her hut. She would watch the children of the Paul’s and would quietly wish in her heart of hearts that she would go to school someday too. Education was the need of her soul; she wanted to know the unknown, to achieve something which she herself was unaware of.
One day, as she was sweeping the floor, she overhears the tutor, Miss Madhavi saying, “Do you know Sohom, that the Earth we live in is round?” Sohom nodded and said, “Yes mam, our class teacher told us yesterday.”
Durga for a second could not believe what she heard. “How can the earth that we step on be round?” She was puzzled by the thought. Unable to hold her curiosity she ran outside, placed her barefoot on the mud and looked around. Long stretches of lanes lay still before her on the flat ground. “The Earth is not round”, she thought and looked about keenly for any other clue. Then she stared at the sky trying to figure out anything that would prove the tutor right. Durga stood there for some time, and then she nodded her head in excitement as if she had known it all along.
She flew open her arms and stretched them at 90degrees opposite each other, making her hands horizontal to the ground. Assuming her hands to be the horizon, she drew an imaginary half circle above in the air which went from her left hand to her right. Then, she made another half circle below in the same manner and joined them. She eventually made a full circle. Eureka! She found it! She then smiled a smile of half joy and sadness and thought, “I’m so stupid. How can I find it out by drawing circles in the air like that?” Suddenly it struck her that she had seen a rainbow the other day which had formed a semi- circle in the sky. Her face glowed and she smiled in pure joy and said confidently, “The teacher is right.”
“Durga, Durga”, called Mrs.Paul from her flat. Durga slammed her forehead with her hand in a gesture of forgetfulness and ran in. “Where have you been Durga?” frowned Mrs. Paul. “What were you doing outside stretching your hands and looking around?” asked Mrs. Paul looking quizzed. “Nothing masima”, said Durga and asked for forgiveness for leaving her work unattended.
Durga had learnt a lot about many great people in the 3 months that she spent working in that household. She learnt about a great warrior Rana Pratap Singh, who fought with the British; Vidyasagar who is known as the father of the Bengali language and about a great poet and creative genius, Rabindranath Tagore.
Days passed and Durga was happy to learn new things every weekend until a day came when she heard her mother talking to an aunt about her marriage. Durga was shocked. When her mother finished her chat and came home, Durga asked her mother, “What were you saying to Chaitali masi about me?” “Oh that! It was about your marriage Durga”, said her mother. “What! Are you marrying me off?” cried Durga. “Girls get married early”, her mother shot back. “Anyway, you are turning 11 this month and I have to start looking for a husband for you”, said her mother and sat on the cot. Durga’s hopes and aspirations were falling apart.
She pleaded, “Ma, I do not want to marry so early. If I marry and go away then who will earn the extra 250rs?” Her mother asked her to sit on the cot beside her. She explained Durga, “Listen daughter, we are not rich. Girls in our family are married off at the age of 12 or 13 and I also have to arrange a dowry for your husband.” Durga fell quiet, her heart slowed down and tears came to her eyes. Her mother saw her daughter’s tears and stroked her head saying, “My little child, I’m your mother. I will not do anything that will have a bad effect in your life.” But Durga’s definition of good and bad was a bit different from her mother. She knew that she would not be allowed to study even if they had the money and that her mother would have married her off as soon as possible. She wanted to study, to earn enough money so that her mother could live comfortably in a house and not a shanty. Her dreams were big, but opportunities were nil.
The next morning she went to work as usual. She entered the house and there was a silence. The Paul family was glued to the television where scenes of waves destroying houses and toppling buildings were seen. The Bengali news anchor was informing the viewers in a sympathetic voice about the calamity that had struck Japan. The huge waves hitting the coast and drowning big ships made her shudder. “What has happened, didi?” she asked Sohini. Sohini told her about Tsunami and how it had taken a toll in the lives of the Japanese. Durga sympathised with the people who had lost their lives in the Tsunami and they all prayed for peace for the people and their families. Durga had completed her work early that day and sat with Mrs. Paul in the living-room.
It was unusual for Mrs. Paul to ask such a question to Durga but that day she could not help but ask, “Do you have a father Durga?” Durga answered in the negative. “He is dead”, said Durga. Mrs. Paul was taken aback by the bluntness of the answer. It was not what she was expecting. “Generally, the men of that stratum of society either abandon their wives or are too drunk to earn any livelihood”, she thought. But this was not the case of poor Durga.
Durga’s eyes were watery and she could barely control her emotions in front of Mrs. Paul whom she really liked. As Mrs. Paul saw the tears she held Durga’s head and pulled her close to her bosom. “Don’t cry my child”, she consoled Durga, “Everything will be alright. You will grow up to be a big and responsible girl.” Mrs. Paul for the 1st time felt the pain that Durga had. She tried her best to console her saying, “Don’t cry Durga, you will take care of your mother and brother.” Mrs. Paul thought it was not so polite of her to ask Durga about her father. She regretted it in her heart.
Suddenly there was something that Durga said unknowingly that touched Mrs. Paul. “How can I look after my mother? She will get me married within a year if she finds a boy for me. But I wanted to study. Now that will never be possible”, wailed Durga with her broken heart, her tears streaming rapidly from her cheeks and wetting Mrs. Paul’s blouse. Rubbing her tears Mrs. Paul felt a motherly love towards the little girl. “She will be married off in a year?” she thought, “But she is barely 10 years old”. There was another phrase that little Durga had uttered that took the lady by surprise. “But I wanted to study.” This ran through Mrs. Paul’s head several times after Durga had left. She thought of the little girl’s wish to study and look after her family. “How many children of her age think like that?” she thought, “Durga has grown up faster than children of her age”.
She was determined to teach Durga to read and write at least till the time she is not married off. The next day, Durga was taken aback when Mrs. Paul told her that she would teach her to read and write. Durga could not believe her ears. She was elated and jumped with joy.
Durga began to learn the alphabets English and Bengali. Soon she could make sentences on her own. Mrs. Paul was also happy with her social service and would boast about the sharpness of mind of her new student to her neighbours and relatives.
Months passed and Durga could now make sentences as well as read paragraphs in Bengali and English. Mrs. Paul taught her to read nursery rhymes and do mental maths. She was happy with the progress of her bright student. Relatives would often drop by to see the progress and give suggestions about how to teach Durga and make her more efficient in Maths and English. Mrs. Paul and her student loved the attention that had garnered about them in a few months. The children of Mrs. Paul were also very happy with the noble idea and they often helped their mother in teaching Durga.
Miss. Shobha Sarkar, as she was called before her marriage, Mrs. Paul had been a bright student of Economics in her college in Bihar, where her Bengali father was posted at that time but, before completing her graduation she was married off to a Bengal bred engineer as her parents thought that marriage was more important for a girl than her studies. It had broken her down. She had promised herself that she would not let this injustice happen to her daughter. Thankfully, her husband was an educated man and wanted the same to be for his children.
Mrs. Paul took her job of tutoring Durga very seriously. Durga was getting better and better every day. There was one question that was there in Mrs. Paul’s mind, “What lies ahead of Durga after this?” Neighbours would often take it lightly when Mrs. Paul would ask them if they knew about a government school where Durga could study. They would discourage her saying that no school will take Durga as she is too old to go to a nursery school. Mrs. Paul would shove them off saying, “Durga would go to a good school and start her schooling from class 4”.
Finally, after months of rigorous hard work of both Durga and her tutor, Durga was able to read and understand the books of standard III. Now, it was time to worry. There was this eternal question in the mind of Mrs. Paul. Which school would take a home-schooled child like her? And who would pay for her studies?
Durga was happy and very thankful to Mrs. Paul for the wonderful opportunity that she presented her with. But Durga had become greedy. She loved to study, to know more and more. She wanted to sail with her flag high on the river of knowledge. But little did she know that there was a whirlwind approaching her.
Her mother had found her a suitable boy of 21 who would take a cycle and 10,000 rupees as dowry. Durga received this piece of news from her very excited mother. The boy’s family would come to see Durga two days later. Durga was shocked and shattered. She had for a long time forgotten this part of her life. She had day dreamed too much about having a job, a house and a car like the Paul’s. She had forgotten the reality of her life, that reality was poverty.
Will she break through her society and step on a new paradise or, will she allow her poverty to rule her and be married to eternal life of illiteracy and drudgery!
Mrs. Paul was frantically going here and there in order to get Durga admitted to a good school or get a scholarship for her. But no such government school would take her. Double bad news for Durga and hence, the little girl’s heart was broken.
Little Durga was preparing for the day when she would be dolled up in a sari and brought in front of the groom and his family; a lamb to be sacrificed for the purpose of marriage! Finally, the day arrived and Durga found herself sitting in front of the groom and his family. She was wrapped around in a new sari that was purchased specially for this occasion. Durga only knew that if they selected her as their daughter-in-law then, she would have to cook and clean for her new husband and his family all her life and give up her ambition to study. She prayed to God silently during her marriage interview that she would not get selected. After a few days, her disappointed mother received a reply from the groom’s family that they did not want Durga as their daughter-in-law.
This was disheartening news to Durga’s mother . She had hoped to get her daughter married by the age of 11 but now she had to begin the search once again. And it was a chance for Mrs. Paul to save Durga from child marriage and secure her life with education. Mrs. Paul asked everyone for help. Then Miss Madhavi came up with a brilliant proposition for Durga. She said she had requested the Principal of the school that she teaches in for help. The good news was that she agreed to give Durga a full scholarship till standard X but, Durga had to face an interview and a written exam on Maths and English. Things started looking up in Durga’s life once again. She was perfectly elated and awfully nervous about her new life.
She cried with joy and her ambitions started to grow wings. Durga’s mother had nothing to say after listening to all the good things that her daughter would get from life and education. Mrs. Paul actually bribed Durga’s mother with a new sari and aspirations of having an educated groom for her daughter sans dowry if she lets her daughter study. So, all’s well that ends well. Or, is it?
We leave it to Durga to clear her interview this time. And as Durga says, “The size of the schools, the availability of time or discouragement from others do not matter, what matters is your incomprehensible urge to be educated!”