Bodies less loved
Encountering everyday social malaise, yet relentlessly striving to sustain their rich ecosystem – the women of Kumaon hills lead a remarkable life that is hardly acknowledged
I was in Bhiyalgaon, a small village nestling in the Central Himalayan ranges of Uttarakhand, India, recording life stories of women from this region known as the Kumaon hills. Amma, as the women of her age are called, had just finished plastering her house with cow dung for the upcoming festival of Diwali.
Once she began narrating the story of her life, her face projected myriad emotions. She had unravelled the quilt of her memories. Her childhood was without play, her youth was without a husband and her old age was full of longing. Her life story was a poignant narrative of women from the hills – married by the age of 15, mothers of five to six children by the age of 25 and dead by the age of 55.
I finally asked her what her dream was. She joked, "I see ghosts in my dreams, ghosts." Twisting the question, I asked what she would want to be reborn as. "Queen, I will reborn as a queen," she said and laughed aloud, conscious of her missing teeth. "I will be the Queen; my man will be the King. We will eat, sing, dance and have a great time." Queen symbolised beauty – a life of comfort and leisure. It is this life that Amma desired after a life clogged with hardships.
She was only a child when she was married to another child. She still remembers vividly the day she was married. "I had worn a bright red sari with a saffron-coloured pichora. From head to toe I glittered gold – maang tikka upon my forehead, nath on the nose, jhumka in my ears, rings upon my fingers, bangles on my wrist and anklets on my ankles. I looked nothing less than a forest goddess." Teasing me, she said in a hushed voice, "That's how a woman is tamed, with jewellery. It's the tintinnabulation of her jewellery with which the man tracks her movement."
Amma's daughter, Asha, is 37 years old. She weighs 40 kg, has one husband, four children, two cows, four goats, two dogs and hens to feed. Of the ten odd working hours she has in a day, six are spent on chopping firewood and gathering fodder. Her life is no different from that of her mother's or from that of any other woman's from the region. It is but a miracle that her thin, undernourished and anaemic body sustains such hardships day in and out. "I was only 12 when I would accompany my mother to the forest to chop wood. As a little girl, I had a smaller sickle. It's the sickle which is a woman's true companion. It is given to her as a girl and it stays with her until death," narrated Asha, sharpening her sickle upon a stone.
Women walking up and down the precarious slopes of mountains, carrying a head load double their weight, is a sight no one visiting these parts can miss. Men migrate to cities or work as daily wage labours. It is the women who manage the household, the cattle and the fields.
Owning a cow defines ones status, hence, it is imperative to have a cow or two in ones backyard. Tending the cow, feeding her, bringing fodder and milking are all a woman's task – her life revolves around her cow, while her own has little worth. "No one will think twice before spending thousands if a cow falls ill. But a woman of the house can die without proper medication. One can always get a second wife – younger, prettier and stronger for free," Asha said. A cow has to be bought.
The labour provided by women allows the mountain economy to survive and sustain itself. Farming is subsistence, with little to no marketable surplus. It is the fruit orchards which bring the cash. Fruit plucking is done by women and children. Half crate has 7 kg fruits and full crate, 15 kg. The wooden frames required to make these crates are left by the road with the fruit contractor. These are piled in bundles of around 50 kg and are carried home by women. Once the crates are packed with fruits by men sitting under a tree, the women carry these crates on their head up the hill. On an average, the household saves Rs 15,000 to 20,000 on labour, each fruit season. It is but a miracle that these malnourished, anaemic women sustain these hardships. Weight, energy, strength do not influence the load one can carry here. This is not to say that men here are not trained to carry weight. The difference is that men are paid for carrying weight and women aren't.
The life of a woman is tough, dangerous and short in these mountains. On an average, women in these remote parts carry weight which is nothing less than 50-60 kg, when they themselves weigh not more than 40 kg. The average haemoglobin count of the women here is 6 gm. Irrespective of the season, women move up and down the slopes, almost mechanically, carrying loads of firewood and fodder. Death due to falling off a tree or down the hill is common. Firewood is required all year long. With depleting forest covers and increasing restrictions on lopping in reserved forest areas, women now have to walk more than what they did before. Like women's labour, firewood is free and preferred over gas stoves which cost money.
Interestingly, going to the forest, is something the women look forward to. It is a space they can escape to from their nagging husbands and in-laws. Deep in the forest these women sit, gossiping and puffing beedi. "Ban ko mat de gari, ban ko kutch na bol. Ban hai mera mait" (Don't abuse my forests; don't say anything to my forests. The forest is my friend), sang Amma. Going to the forest is a socially acceptable pretext for a woman to step out of the confines of her homes.
It is important to understand the social and moral dimensions which justify the current distribution of work. A woman who doesn't keep a cow is a 'bad woman'. Mol lana, (buying) and udhar lana (borrowing) implies that the woman of the house is not hardworking. "The woman must work hard. The fields must not remain fallow and there should be at least one cow at home. Running to shop for every little thing is not right," says Asha. For women here, there isn't a concept of leisure.
During menstruation, the woman is relegated to the cowshed for she is considered impure during those days. Other than cooking and milking the cow, the nature of work remains same during menstruation. The work doesn't change during pregnancy either. "The day Ravi was born; I went to the forest to bring firewood, chopped fodder and fed the cow. I cooked food and then walked up to the midwife's house, asking her to come home in an hour. But before she arrived, I had delivered the child," recalls Asha with an immense sense of pride.
A woman is respected for her endurance, strength and chastity. Even today, there are stories of women delivering in the forest, returning home with a baby after burying the placenta in the woods.
The prevalent ideas of 'good woman' and 'bad woman' weigh heavily on their minds; ideas they conform to in order to fit in. Women are glorified for performing this back breaking work. The women here are strongly held by social and moral obligations of conforming to established practices, expectations of others and societal norms, diminishing their ability to overcome the constraints they face. The women here do not complain of hardships. They feel disheartened by a life devoid of loving care. Their malnourished bodies have no way of expressing frustrations, fatigue and fears. It manifests as numbness.
Beneath the numbing acceptance of drudgery as a way of life, however, is a dream of becoming a Queen – of soft hands and supple skin.