Fact: India has second largest number of sex-selective abortions only after China.
Four hundred kilometers in the west of Uttar Pradesh, our great ancestral home stood pretty as a bride, veiled by red and yellow fairy lights that illuminated the otherwise dark rural neighborhood. I could hear faint sounds of women singing wedding folk songs on a dholak as I parked my car in the courtyard. Mother and I had come all the way from New Delhi to attend the wedding of my last cousin brother.
Nostalgia overwhelmed me as I ascended towards the doors of my childhood getaway where I had spent countless summers as a child before I got sucked into the quagmire of city life. Maybe it was the lights, or the folk songs or the smell of the food but I suddenly felt alive again despite the tiring journey.
I looked at my exasperated mother who was striving to find a scarf in her massive handbag. “Do you really need to cover your head, mother? You are going to turn fifty.” I couldn’t help but ask.
“Yes, I do. It would be considered as disrespectful if I didn’t.” she replied sternly and then paused to glance at me as if realizing this for the first time, “you should have worn a longer and a looser shirt.”
“Please.” I scoffed.
Inside, the house was buzzing with all our relatives and friends who had come from across the country to attend the wedding. There were people from neighborhood too because of the cohesive society structure in the suburbs and grandma invited everybody to attend the big fat wedding of her last grandson. I noticed that the house was broadly divided into two sections, men’s and women’s. The men sat in the living room while the women and kids sat in rooms near the kitchen area. The men wore pink turbans and discussed politics while the women were clad in colorful sarees and managed the kitchen. I noticed that mother had proceeded to touch some of the elderly’s feet, a mark of respect in Hindu culture.
I was talking to one of my distant aunts when someone tapped at my shoulder.
“Didi, you are here! I have been waiting for you since morning” said a soft voice. I turned around and instantly recognized that face…it was Maya! She was the daughter of chachi ji, our domestic help who had been serving my grandmother from before I was born. Maya was my only friend during my summer break here. We played doll house, teacher-teacher and threw pebbles in the river in the evening. We used to talk for hours and nurtured each other’s secrets. We were inseparable until she went home at night with chachi ji but only until next morning. She was a long lost friend and a sister.
“Maya, oh my god! Look at you…you got…. married! ” I hugged a petite Maya who stood clad in a bright green saree. She wore vermillion, a red streak along the parting of her hair and a red dot between her eyes, a symbol of matrimony used by Hindu women.
“Yes, I did! I have a daughter too” she said with a weak smile pointing to a little girl playing with other children.
“Oh my god! You have such a cute baby Maya! What’s her name? How old is she? I want to meet her!”
“Her name is Bala, didi and she is three years old. Let’s get you something to eat first and then you can meet her.” She said with a warm smile.
We had dinner in a quiet room, away from the hustle just like old times and talked about our lives in past twelve years. Her eyes lit up like a child when I told her that I worked in a reputed firm, travelled sometimes and lived on my own. It was very fascinating for her that there existed a society, just a few hundred miles from here where women, even unmarried ones were ‘allowed’ to live independently. She told me she had been arranged married when she was twenty years old, as soon as she had completed her graduation. She said she wanted to become a teacher in college once Bala turns five.
“Why did you stop coming here didi? I thought I would never see you” Maya asked.
“Because I started enrolling for summer camps, tuitions, internships and then I got a job. It’s a crazy vicious circle. Though I really missed you and the good old childhood days when…we could just jump into the river.” I smiled and she did too.
“I miss those days too. Married life is complicated especially when living in a joint family but Raghav is very loving and understanding.” She blushed.
“Of course he is very loving, in fact, his love is very much showing.” I teased. “Sooo…when is the baby coming?”
She paused as if searching for the right words. “Never”, she finally said.
“I don’t understand…?” I asked perplexed.
She opened her mouth to speak but instead burst into tears. I held her in my arms for almost ten minutes before she could compose herself.
“They want me to have an abortion because it’s a girl.”
Her next words hit me like a ton of bricks. I knew there existed societies where women do not get equal rights and are required to live and behave a certain way. I knew in this world, we have to cover our faces sometimes and sometimes we are raped. But being murdered while still in the womb because it’s a girl, I didn’t see this coming.
“This cannot happen…” I uttered aghast.
Outside the evening prayers had started and the temple bells were chiming. The priests were singing verses in the praises of Laxmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity.
“Who wants you to get an abortion? And how do you know it’s a girl? Sex determination is an illegal practice and so is abortion. We can go to the police.” I said trying to make sense of the situation although I did know that illegal abortions happened all the time.
“Everybody — Raghav, his parents and the society. But… I don’t want to lose my baby.” she said as tears still streamed down her face, “Having a son is everything to him and his parents”.
My mother stormed inside the room pretending to look annoyed. “Girls, come for the Pooja. Grandma will not be happy about you missing the prayers.” She knew I never attended the prayers but then I also knew that she would have to hear an earful from grandma on bad parenting and so I played along.
“Coming Maa.” I said as we both stood up to leave, Maya wiping her tears. “Let’s talk about this in a bit. Okay? I promise you, we will figure something out.”
My head hurt and my heart broke from the information I had just received. Maybe I could talk to her husband Raghav and knock some sense into him, I wondered.
Later that night, I tossed and turned in my bed, lying next to mother. Not knowing what else to do, I told her about Maya’s situation. She heard everything and lay there silently. I thought she was shocked too until she said, “I know this is not what you want to hear but sex-selective abortion is a common practice here and I think you should not interfere especially when she is not family. It’s between a husband and wife.”
“You cannot be serious! Please Maa, Maya doesn’t want this, she was crying like a baby, we need to help her.” I protested.
“This is not your place. Be rational about it and get some sleep. We have to wake up early tomorrow.”
But I didn’t sleep that night because if I knowingly let a baby die then I would forever bear the guilt of it. I finally got up and opened my laptop to make a presentation on some of the powerful Indian women who had earned respect and laurels to show to Maya’s husband. I did some research and prepared some arguments.
Next day, I approached Raghav who was reading the newspaper in the verandah. He looked just slightly older than me and was a brashly attractive man with broad shoulders that came naturally after a lot of fieldwork. I did recall Maya telling me that he was a farmer. He greeted me politely and told me that he had heard a lot about me from Maya. He came across to be a gentleman and seemed a bit surprised when I requested to talk to him in private but nevertheless obliged to my request.
“What can I do for you?” he asked in his thick local accent.
“Raghav ji, I know that Maya is pregnant with another baby girl and that you want her to have an abortion.” I saw his expressions change from kind to grim.
“I want you to understand that times have changed and girls are as competent as boys these days. What you are doing is not only illegal but irrational. There is no need to murder an unborn and put your wife’s life at risk and -”
“Are you done? Can I leave now? This is none of your business” he barked as anger flushed his face.
“I will report this to the police.” I stated. He stared at me and then rolled his eyes.
“What is the matter with you city girls? Why do you always have to show off all this fake power? Go tell the police, I give no damn. And if you must know, I always wanted to have a son and I will not stop until I have one. And though you think you know it all but let me educate you a bit. It’s a son who carries on a family lineage and takes care of his parents when they grow old. Daughters get married and leave their families. A son becomes the man of the house who earns money for his parents, protects honor and guards his women. It is he who will light my pyre when I die. A son means security and a social status. Having only daughters is like watering your neighbor’s lawn. You collect money all your life and give it away in dowry and god forbid, if she brings dishonor to the family. Plus I already have a daughter so you better not lecture me on family planning especially when it looks like nobody wants to plan one with you.”
And then he stormed out of the room as I sat too shocked to move. That man was right in his mind and that terrified me.
However, later that day when all the women, including Maya’s mother and mother-in-law, had gathered to sing folk songs, I thought maybe I could use this opportunity to talk to them. One last shot, after all there wasn’t anything to lose but a lot to gain. I stood up and clapped my hands to draw everybody’s attention and after a few claps I had almost fifty pair of eyes gawking at me.
“Namaste. We have all gathered to celebrate my brother’s wedding but I must confess to you that finding a bride for him was not easy. Wonder why? Well…because there is only one female to every eight men in our country.
Surprised? I am not.
I stand before you to talk about my friend who bears with her an unborn daughter. It has been told to me that she has been asked to get rid of this unborn child on the grounds that it’s a girl. I have also come to know that having a son is of prime importance in some households because a girl is considered to be a social and economic liability.
At this point I cannot help but wonder, did nobody have sons who never called once they left home? Sons who turned their backs when you needed them the most? Sons who never earned a penny and never built a house? Sons who left for good and made choices that didn’t exactly align with the moral compass. Then what is it that assures this ‘social security’ and why is it that a girl cannot provide this? The difference here is not of gender but of belief. There were some who believed in their daughters and those daughters became Indira Gandhi, Kiran Bedi, Kalpana Chawla, Saina Nehwal and I could go on. These girls became prime ministers, sportspersons who won medals for the country and went on to the space. And there could have been more like them but they were killed while they were still in the womb. Imagine what would have happened if you and I were killed in the womb? Then what gives us the right to take another life? If you believe in God, then you must also believe that only he is entitled to create and take lives.
The times have changed and we do not need men to fight in wars anymore. They work in offices and earn money and there is no reason a girl cannot do the same. In today’s times, education is a game changer.
We should not forget that when a girl is killed, an entire family tree is killed with her and for what? The law now states that the family property is required to be equally divided amongst all the siblings irrespective of the gender upon parent’s death. The law also provides free education to all girls up to elementary school and it also bans dowry.
I can only request you all to just think about it and if you still think only a son can save your family then, god help us because soon we will be living in a society of all men who will share and rape women because there will be so few left and they will treat us even worse because the minority is always treated the worse. The solution here is to not have few of us but to have more of us. Let’s not kill our daughters. Please.”
After I finished speaking, I saw that there were few women who had tears in their eyes and there were few who were visibly derisive and thought I was out of my mind. Maya had left the crowd.
Next morning mother and I left for home after attending the wedding, this time not talking much during our journey. I till date not know if Maya got to have her baby girl but I do hope I convinced at least one mind in that crowd of women that day and saved at least one family tree.
I cannot help but wonder if some battles will end with the end of humanity for their seeds were sown as early as with the beginning of one.