“See, how good she was at art. Her Hindi notebook, English. See her handwriting. Isiliye toh usko padha rahe they, ki hum sab na kar paye rahe, woh kar le (That’s why we wanted her to study, so that all that we could not do, she would).”
Her story, though, would turn out just like others before her. On September 14, the Dalit student, along with her elder sister, was found hanging from a tree in their village – and, once again, what would seem unlikely a few years ago had come to pass in Uttar Pradesh.
Six youths who knew the girls, in their tens, have been arrested, as a case that was initially suspected to be suicide is now being probed for alleged rape and murder.
A neighbour who lives a few houses away, also in her teens, fears what it means for her. “Ladkiyon ka bahar nikalna mushkil ho jayega (it will get difficult for girls to be allowed out of home now).”
It has never been easy. For girls of their age in the village, days and years fall into a familiar routine: wake up before dawn to go to the fields and relieve themselves; juggle studies and housework till Class 8; and, drop out after that as the higher secondary school is 5 km away and carries the risk of “badnami (bad name)” should anything happen, or money is too short to spare on girls. Then, as the brothers and other male members leave the village for work, wait for enough dowry to be arranged to get married.
Those who do break the cycle either do not speak out against incidents such as eve-teasing or worse, for fear of being made to “sit at home”, or their parents are described as being “zigra wale (brave)”.
The village, part of a big gram panchayat, has a mixed population of Scheduled Castes (the majority), and OBCs like Maurya, Yadav etc.
The brother of the two girls who died thumbs through the school notebooks of his younger sister and says she was meant to be one of the exceptions. “Both of us (brothers) migrated to find work so as to save enough to get our elder sister married. Since the food and living are free at the factory where we work, we would send 99% of the earnings home,” the brother, who is out of his teens, says. Recently, they bought the elder sister, who also stopped studying after middle school and managed house work as their mother is ailing, a sewing machine — “to keep her occupied and learn something without leaving home”, the brother says.
Another sister, the eldest, got married eight years ago.
“The target was to save about Rs 2-2.5 lakh for a decent marriage for the second sister, and then invest in education of the younger one, as she was the brightest in studies among us,” the brother says, adding that he could think of settling down himself only after this as well as contributing to helping repair the family home.
There were other sacrifices, he adds, talking about the fact that among them, only he has a smartphone while their father has a basic phone for them to keep in touch. His dream of buying a motorcycle has been on hold, as are plans to build a toilet at home for the sisters. He has also taken on night shifts as these pay Rs 16,500 a month, compared to Rs 10,000 for a day shift.
The younger sister’s schoolbag still lies on an iron trunk in a room of their house, which also serves as a kitchen-cum-store. The family’s possessions include a couple of bicycles, a gas stove, a grain container, two charpoys and two wooden beds, as well as three goats, two buffaloes and a cow; about the only adornments are calendars or photos of various gods. The elder sister would take care of the animals as part of her daily chores.
Their teenaged neighbour is afraid the sisters’ death would mean the end of her dreams too: of joining the police. She could not participate in a recent recruitment drive.
In the village, she is among the few girls to have gone on to do her graduation (she is in her final year). Her subjects are Sociology, Economics and Hindi, she says proudly, adding that if not police, she wants to continue higher education.
Her brother interrupts her: “What will you gain by studying one more level? There are no jobs here.” He studied only till Intermediate and is employed at a cloth mill in Surat with some other boys from the village.
Her mother agrees, justifying: “What can we do? It’s for her own safety. I would send her steeling my heart.” The college is 15 km away – meaning a bicycle ride till about 5 km to the nearest town, and then a bus to the college. “She can learn whatever she wants at home. Anyway who wants her to become an officer, with all these risks?”
At the other end of the spectrum, with no school education at all, another girl repeats the teenager’s fears. A friend of the elder Dalit sister, who also stitched clothes like her, says things had started changing for the girls in the village. “They had started going to college. But now, everyone will be afraid to send us.”
The brother of the Dalit sisters feels that with he and another brother away, and their mother ailing, the girls were vulnerable. On the day of the incident, their father was slightly unwell and hence could not accompany the younger sister as she rode a bicycle to school.
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As he says that his sisters “kept to themselves”, an aunt, who lives next door, agrees: “They didn’t even go anywhere, except to relatives’ homes.”
Meanwhile, at the home of the sisters, an immediate concern has momentarily replaced the grief. Incessant rain has left their house flooded, and the girls’ grandfather is struggling to clear the water using the lid of a steel box.
The family places their possessions on some upper shelves. This year, the younger girl’s schoolbag will find its place there. Perhaps forgotten will be a poster of actors Ajay Devgn and Kajol, pasted on one of the walls by the two sisters.