Manoj’s 4 Daughters
Home is where daughters are!
Our quaint little apartment has a tradition of employing a watchman who lives with his family. He is given a house in the basement for his family to bunk-up in. The management in our apartment like to call it “A family security scheme(!!!)”.
Muniyappa our previous watchman and his amiable wife who liked stitching had to leave his job and our apartment for their village, to take care of their dying paddy fields. In their place came Manoj, his wife (who’s on the family way) and their two charming little daughters: Champa & Bianka. Bianka is 7 years old, a shy, silent and a cheerful girl who likes to flip through books, without understanding its content. Champa, 5 years old, is the apple of their (and our) eye. Cute as a button, tomboyish and aloof, she only pays attention to me if I have a chocolate or balloon to offer her.
In a few months, saddened and tired of watching Bianka flip through books, my mom asked Manoj to send her to school. She suggested applying to a government school close by. Manoj’s eyes lit up when she insisted the school’s fee was minimal, not free, but quite nominal. A week later, Bianka was packed off to school every morning. In a crisp uniform, plaited hair and a bag on her back, she looked like a force to reckon with. When I got back from work, I would still see her sitting on her mother’s lap flipping through pages, cluelessly. I asked her to visit our home every evening so my mom (who is a teacher) or I could help her learn. From then on she frequented us with a subject and book of her choice, for an hour long practice.
One evening in an attempt to teach Bianka mathematics, I asked her to count how many sisters she had. She began stretching her fingers one at a time. There came the index, then the middle, the ring and the little fingers. Perplexed, I asked her to do the numbers again. She stretched out 4 fingers once more, calling out her own name, Champa and two other names, which I did not identify. I laughed assuming she was imagining things and further enquired about her other two siblings. In a dramatic retort, she narrated the last time she met her elder sisters who live with their aunt in their village.
After she packed up, I walked Bianka back home to the basement. When Manoj smiled and nodded, I leapt at the first opportunity to ask him about his daughters. Yes, he confirmed ‘I have a 16 year old and another 10 year old back in my village. The elder girl is going to complete her 10th standard after which she will stay at home till she finds a groom’. He added ‘government schools are completely free in the village and I will not spend a dime for their education’. Slightly agitated at the statement, yet empathetic about his finances, I asked him how he managed to raise 4 girls with the salary he earned. Manoj has some land back home and money is not his concern he claimed, ‘I just need a monthly income like this, besides my land’. To add my 2 cents, I explained how important it is to get girls and boys educated and why it is in the best of his interest to enable all his 4 daughters to study. ‘Would you let your eldest daughter pursue her higher education later if she wishes?’ I prodded him further. He shrugged and retorted ‘education is for boys, not girls’ and if he has a boy next, he will give the best education he can afford to the boy.
I felt my head reel and my heart pound helplessly. ‘What if your next child isn’t a boy?’ I asked. ‘That’s god’s wish but girls have to be married, and boys have to study’, asserting so Manoj turned his back to me, calling out to his wife. I took a step back taking the rude hint and returned completely gutted wondering what he thought about me and other educated working women he saw everyday. From the window of his mind, did he wish his daughters grew up like us, or were we setting wrong examples for them?
Champa, who should be going to school continues to stay back home charming us with her bitter-sweet brattiness. One day she went missing from home, she was later found following her sister to school. Dragged back home and given a smack, she now sits on her father’s chair and waits for her sister to get back from school everyday. A couple of days back I saw her pull Bianka’s hair and tear her book, while the latter sobbed in complain. The first mover’s advantage has its drawbacks, I thought to myself. And if Champa is not sent to school next year, I will sponsor her school fee.
Who’s next? A boy or a girl? Only time will tell. I see the two endearing butterflies follow Manoj and his wife everywhere they go, while the parents lovingly tease their daughters. I close my eyes and make a wish - for the possibility of the love they share to change how they see their daughters, someday.