I ventured into rural West Bengal only after joining Milaap. Being born and brought up in Kolkata, it was hard to know what to expect from Milaap borrowers in rural Bengal. Well, after my third visit, now I know.
I call myself a feminist. I have the disruptive habit of opening my mouth if women's rights are compromised. On my first visit, I went to Daspara, a village near Shantipur. I met a woman who looked younger to me and I went to talk to her. She was one of the borrowers. I asked her name (which I don't want to reveal) and the next thing I asked was, “What’s your age?” I wouldn’t have done that normally, but she looked so young and tired, I had to know if she could handle it.
She replied, “I am 23.”
She was three years younger than me. Wanting to comfort her, I started talking to her about Calcutta and how much more beautiful her village was. She suddenly said, “Didi, it’s good that you stay in a city. You can work and you can come to villages to enjoy this beauty. Our fate is such that we do not even know how a big city looks like. We cannot work as you do. We take birth and everyone is in a hurry to get us married off.” I was taken aback.
That's when I asked her more about her marriage and the discussion went like this:
“I have a daughter who is 12 years old.”
“And you were married when?”
“Three years before my daughter was born. They had to wait for my first period for quite long as I had late period.”
“Did you go to any school?”
“Yes, till the time my father-in-law came with the marriage proposal”
“Why didn’t you say 'no' to the marriage?”
“We are not from the city that’s why”
“So you said yes to the proposal”
“I was not even asked. But I have a nice husband. He doesn’t beat me like other husbands do. I am lucky that way”
“Every time I go back home, I have the same discussion with my mother. I ask her why she got me married so early. I was 11 or 12 years old. It was my time to play, study. My daughter is now that age. I know the pain and I will not force her to get married. My mother also knew, but I don’t know how she could do this to me.”
This was not the time to go feminist on this borrower who is more aware of what she lost than I could ever be. I had to think a bit about what to say. I wanted to ask her about the Milaap loan, but she went on.
“How old are you?”“26”
“When will you get married?”
“ No plans as of now.”
“And your mother or father not asking you to get married?”
“I will marry when I find someone, no?” (Yes, I was being me, but she took it in her stride)
“Shohorer lok der dekhle hingshe hobe na bolo?” (You tell me why I should not be jealous of you guys?)
I was done. I began asking her about how she had used the loan. As I was leaving her house, suddenly, she showed me a picture from her wedding.
“This is the only picture I have of my marriage. Look at how young I was”
(After the above conversation, I went back to ask her if I could write about her. She looked scared. I assured her I wouldn't use her name. So, I can’t. I wish I could show you what an amazing woman she is.)