A YOUNG MOTHER'S PROMISE
This story begins among a group of huts on the rural outskirts of Balwad, Belgaum district, Karnataka. The midwife had been summoned yet again. The women waited outside, whispering prayers to their goddess, Yellamma. But when they handed Shobha her firstborn child, the young woman’s thoughts were elsewhere. For that brief, shocking moment, she saw own childhood more clearly than the tiny breathing bundle she held. She remembered the innocent games, the laughter - despite the gnawing hunger and their dirty ragged clothes.
But most vividly, she remembered the day they gave her food and new clothes. Sweetmeats she never dreamed of. Pretty dresses too. One, in particular, made of fragrant neem leaves. They bathed her. Dressed her. Prayed over her. And tied a pretty necklace made of red and white beads around her little neck. She had no idea what she’d done to deserve it all. But she was happy. “They envy you,” her aunt whispered, when her siblings turned away, and her mother choked a sob. That was the day they changed her life. The day they made her a Devadasi. She would soon learn the horrors it involved. Her siblings would no longer go hungry; their food bought with money earned off her frail young body. Their envy would turn to disgust. And she would learn to hate her mother, resent her silently.
So when Shobha finally looked into her child’s eyes, she made a fierce promise, “No daughter of mine will become a Devadasi. No son of mine will spend his boyhood laboring in the fields. No child of mine will resent me. From this day on, I will be a mother - loving, dignified, protective. No longer a Devadasi!”
EASIER SAID THAN DONE
As the months passed, Shobha tried to make an honest living. She asked the landlords who had frequented her for jobs. They laughed her off. She asked the wives to let her scrub their floors. They spat at her - the very women who touched her feet at harvest time! She asked about town, they shooed her. Hire a Devadasi? Whoever heard of that! So when her child fell ill, (as her mother chuckled bitterly) Shobha went back to being a Devadasi, and paid the doctor.
Every year, she struggled to keep her promise, and each time, she ended right back as a Devadasi. When her daughter finally came of age, Shobha had to choose. She now had 4 children; an inevitable outcome of her Devadasi life. It would be so easy to dedicate her daughter as a Devadasi and put food on the table. But she had promised. So she thought long and hard. She set out again, asking around the countryside - one final attempt.
And she learned of the Mahila Abhivrudhi mathu Samrakshana Samsthe (MASS) in neighboring Ghataprabha - a collective of former Devadasis helping others to escape the system that robbed their childhoods. They told her of Milaap, who would share her story with people who actually wanted to help. These people, the Milaap community, would give her little loans to help her learn a trade, and setup her own business. So Shobha registered and learned a trade - to raise buffaloes and sell their milk. She applied for a loan and used the money to buy a buffalo. For the first time ever, she was free. She saved, repaid her loan, and requested another. She bought more buffaloes, earned more. Shobha chose to keep her promise. Today, she is securely out of the Devadasi system. And her children, in school.