Sunday, September 01, 2013

Sarita Bai and her child

Insight, Sep '13
By Md. Gulrez

In the year 2007, I was based in interior tribal villages of Madhya Pradesh working with an NGO on community development. My work involved interaction with women, organizing them to form self help groups (SHGs) and promotion of livelihood initiatives.

It must have been around the time I had received confirmation in my job after a yearlong intense induction programme. Instead of feeling high, I was a bit depressed as all the six others who had started with me either left or were asked to leave. Lonely, I tried to engross myself in work. A usual day’s schedule involved getting up early in the morning and rushing to the villages to monitor progress on agricultural and horticultural interventions, attending a few SHG meetings, getting back to the office to do desk work, having lunch, and returning to the villages in the evening to attend more SHG meetings.

Artwork credit: Abhishek Dhar

Usually, a new team member would be given the responsibility of a cluster of villages that had greater challenges to maximize learning opportunities and also to bring in a fresh outlook to the existing scenario. In keeping with this tradition, I was given the responsibility of Raipur cluster consisting of three villages in the Shahpur block of Betul district. Once a vibrant cluster, it had become more or less defunct because of a high drop-out rate and for want of professional engagement.

That fateful evening I decided to visit Phawaria, a village in Raipur cluster. The village had three SHGs of which one had disintegrated a long time ago. Of the remaining two, members of the better functioning one would sit only once a month for meetings instead of weekly. With the thought that this SHG was still functioning, I decided to divert my attention to the other SHG whose members had not met for almost six months. My strategy was to first build rapport with the members and then to convince them to start the meetings again. I decided to make home visits and started with the farthest house.

Sarita Bai (name changed) was sitting in the verandah as I approached. A young mother in her early 20s, draped in an off-white saree, she was busy with her child in her lap. She had been a member of the SHG for almost two years. My background check showed that her borrowings from the SHG were more than her savings and that she had been irregular at meetings whenever they had taken place.

As I exchanged greetings and introduced myself, the calm expression on her face caught my attention. I settled myself in the verandah, putting my bag full of accounting details of the SHG next to me. She put her sleeping child on the ground next to me and rushed into her mud house. She returned with a bed sheet and a glass of water. Offering me water to drink she requested me to get up so that she could spread the sheet for me to sit on. A guest sitting on the ground seemed to have disturbed her, but her calm face, now with a hint of a smile, did not seem to give away any clue.

Accepting the water, I gestured her not to bother about the bed sheet and to sit down. I drew myself closer to the child. Still looking at the child, I asked her what name she had given to her child. Putting the bed sheet on the ground, she sat across me taking the child back into her lap and said, “We have not thought of any name as yet”. Taking the child’s left hand which had slipped out of her lap into mine I asked, “Is it a boy or a girl?”

Sarita Bai gave me a smile and said, “Bhaiya (brother), the child has a different thing.” The next moment, before I could understand what she meant, she disrobed the child’s lower body to reveal genitalia that did not look either like a penis or a vagina. I was astonished. It was for the first time I was witnessing something like this, potentially an intersex child, and did not know how to react.

Photo credit: Vahista Dastoor

My discomfort must have been evident, but Sarita Bai was oblivious and still smiling, she covered her baby cautiously so as not to wake up the child. As far as I could see, from her perspective she seemed to have completely accepted her child and had no discomfort in talking about the child being “different”. In fact, she had been comfortable enough to talk about it to me in our very first meeting. This was so much in contrast to my social context where everything related to sex and sexuality was hushed up, judged . . . I thought I was liberated, broad minded, and accepting of diversity but this incident made me question these notions.

I suppose I was still carrying my baggage, many a times not even aware of it till reality struck me in the face. But Sarita Bai, a tribal woman who had never been exposed to academic or activist gender and sexuality discussions, in many ways seemed better equipped at acceptance than me. If acceptance is about empathy and relating to another person as a human being, does one have to read tomes of books or attend courses?

The SHG meeting did not happen that evening or ever after. I visited the village again in my effort to revive the group but never met Sarita Bai again. Still not over with my discomfort on how to speak about the issue, I never even enquired about the baby from anyone in the village. As time passed, more pressing challenges at work engaged my attention. But Sarita Bai and her child’s image remain etched in my memory. Wherever they are, I hope they are happy and contented.

Md. Gulrez is a social development professional working on rural poverty.

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