I am in South Delhi in an air-conditioned hotel room. It is 40C+ outside. I have bottled water and a flat screen TV supplying endless Bollywood and Hollywood options, hour upon hour of Criminal Minds, The Voice USA and Indian talent shows and sitcoms. My tablet is on my lap and I am tapping out this blog. I have the power to create thanks to the world in which I live, the society, the country, the culture, the job. And yet right now I feel very, very sad and absolutely powerless. My home is in the UK, my job is with the RSA – these day-to-day norms empower me, enable and encourage me to write this. My other home, my husband’s home, is Delhi. This home is what leaves me feeling powerless today.
I have been coming here for many years. I have been embraced by my husband’s family. I consider them to be my family. But gradually over time I have come to understand the difference between my life and theirs – aware of the ‘freedoms’ that I have, the power that my society and my culture enables. Here in Delhi, in this society I am a giant – both physically and metaphorically. I am ‘Bhabhi’ – wife of eldest son who is the head of the household since the father’s death in 1992. My husband’s family are smaller than I, physically, yes, but also their position in their society is somehow silent. Their focus, day-to-day, is survival. There are elections taking place in India now, but they have no interest in voting. They do not see beyond the day-to-day. Corruption is said to be so embedded in politics and entrenched in everyday life that the vote is irrelevant – my family do not even consider, with such a vast population of poor, that their voice or their vote would make one iota of difference. And so they sit in the heat, and the opportunity slips by as another day passes.
I have visited India many times, but this time my sense of powerlessness is heightened. The power to create is the buzz at work, at the RSA. The whole organisation has historically been all about the power to create. It’s what attracted me to the RSA and it’s what I love about being there, and about the people there – the enthusiasm and determination and dedication to making positive change in society. The organisation fits me and my ethos and my world view like a comfortable pair of trainers.
So on this visit to India, I am buzzing with the power to create fresh in my mind. And I walk into my family’s flat with which I am completely familiar – it is dark, walls covered in smoke burn from the small ‘temple’ in the corner, in front of which daily prayers are mumbled and sung, raw electric cables draped, whitewashed walls grubby with children’s handprints and scribble, plaster crumbling. And it is so, so hot. This time, everyone looks even smaller than ever, thin and tired. And in the corner, my aunty is laying on the floor, struggling to breathe. I am instantly reminded of my History A level when I scrutinised images of thousands of Holocaust victims at the end of the Second World War as allies arrived at the many concentration camps across Europe. I am reminded of the most extreme images of anorexics I have seen on eating disorder documentaries or Feed the World footage from the ‘80s and since. My aunty, 40 years old and mother of two boys, lies like skin on bone. She tries to sit as I enter the room but is too weak to move. She is lifted and propped on a pillow but she has no strength in her neck to lift her head and it falls back. She asks her eldest son, Khush, 8 years old, to lift her head and adjust the pillow to support it and he does. She gasps for breath as this is the most demanding thing she has done today. I am shocked. She has always been small and thin but I wasn’t prepared for this. Her appearance suggests to me that she will die very soon. Even breathing is an effort to her. The family go about their business as normal, pottering, chatting, making chai, sitting, the TV constantly blaring, the heat burning. And she slumps, seemingly moments from death. I ask my husband to find out from her husband, Rajesh, what the doctor has said about her condition. He translates that she has not seen a doctor. That her husband has seen the ‘temple man’. He has told them that the chicken pox god is angry – my aunty had chicken pox as a child and symptoms have lingered and lurked like an angry ghost. The temple man told her husband that my aunty must fast for some number of weeks or months. Some days no water is allowed, only fruit, no other foods; this will appease the chicken pox god. ‘But what did the doctor say?’ I ask, struggling with this explanation. They explain that the temple man has told them that if my aunty were to see the doctor or go to the hospital she would die, so she must follow his order, stay home and fast to appease the god. For me, as I look at life slipping from her, as a person that tries to be open and respectful and accepting and tolerant of the beliefs of others, as a person that is enabled by my own society and culture to care for myself and my significant others, as a person that spends my working days with like-minded people that express the importance of the power to create, I am angry, frustrated, exasperated by what I hear and see. ‘Fast? She is starving to death!’ I yell, my eyes welling. I know from experience that the explanation I am provided with from the temple man may be hiding another darker truth – that these people are among the majority of poverty-stricken people in this world, and that in fact, their determination to believe in the words of the temple man may be swayed by the painful truth that these people do not have the financial means to pay for a doctor, for medicine, for hospitalisation, for medical care, for the nutrition that may have prevented this from reaching these extreme and perhaps irreversible levels. These people, in their powerlessness, sit and wait and hope in their faith.
Right now I feel that I perhaps have the power to fix this. I have some money, I have a credit card if needs be. I could buy some medical care, pay for some time in a hospital. But the truth is, right here and right now, I am powerless too. My power to create is a truth for me in my world. Here, as a woman in an ‘other’ world, I am powerless to override the wishes of men, a husband, a nephew, two sons, who believe in the power of men over women, the power of a husband to choose the fate of his wife, the power of the chicken pox god and the temple man, more than they believe in the foreign woman and the medical world and any power that those things could bring.
That was Saturday, today is Tuesday. My aunty is still alive. Deepu arrives – my sister-in-law. She is 24 years old and in January we celebrated her arranged marriage to Dinesh, 25, here in Delhi. Today I promised I would go to the clinic with her and Dinesh. She is three months pregnant but the foetus has died and she must abort it. After a hot and sticky ride in a tuk-tuk we arrive at the clinic. We are taken to a room that reminds me of the hospital in the Secret Wartime Tunnels beneath Dover Castle. The bed is metal, grubby cream chipped paint, a thin plastic covered mattress. On the floor under the bed there are two random bricks and a full dusty tied black bin liner. There’s a small old portable TV with a spaghetti of wires running to the wall. A picture of baby Krishna smiles at us. The nurses are all South Indian and speak neither Hindi nor English, so we struggle to understand the procedure, what’s going to happen, how long it will take. It is hot, only one fan turning rhythmically but no air conditioning. Mosquitoes are circulating looking for their next meal. We wait… We wait… A needle is placed in Deepu’s hand and she is given a pill. She is nervous but hides it well. Her husband is loving and tender.
As is tradition Deepu now lives with her husband’s family. A girl’s family is expected to provide a dowry and pay in large part for the wedding, as far as I understand. Her role, her duty is to take on the daily chores for her husband’s family – her new family. And she is to procreate, provide the family with children, grandchildren to continue the family name. This is perhaps the limit of her power to create. Historically there is a preference for families to create boys rather than girls in this culture. While gender selection pre-birth is now publically and politically banned, a preference for boys still permeates for many. For the poor, the birth of a girl is likely to mean increased financial struggle through life – accruing a dowry, payment for marriage, reduced chance of the sibling getting paid work, career, raising the status of the family. Yes, this attitude is politically unacceptable, but in reality it thrives. Watching an Indian soap today, Diya aur baati hum, a key character – a wealthy and successful business man, has already forced his wife to abort two girls and is in the process of forcing her to abort a third. She flees. The issue is not simply about financial security – it is much deeper than that and relates to the position and power of women and men in this society. This story in this episode of Diya aur baati hum has currency. It is a soap, it is a story to which the populace can relate today.
In the steaming hot clinic Deepu tells me that her parents-in-law are very, very angry that her foetus has died. Deepu is blamed for her failure to procreate successfully. In my limited experience of this world, this culture, reproduction is one act of creation that is expected in no uncertain terms of a woman. As a result of Deepu’s and Dinesh’ failure they are told to leave the house, to move out. They are excluded from the family. They are a blot and an embarrassment. Now I am proud of my Indian family in this instance, because they understand that there is no fault here and should be no blame. They are sympathetic and embrace the couple back into the home. After six sticky hours of sitting and waiting, and a payment of 50,000rs (around £50) Deepu’s deed is done and we are permitted to leave with a bag full of pills and a follow-up appointment. Deepu and Dinesh can try to procreate again in four to six months.
Thursday. Aunty was so poorly in the night that she has finally been taken to hospital, and from that hospital to another – a hospital that specialises in TB. She weighs 25kg. The doctor is furious that she was not brought in sooner. He slaps Rajesh in the face for failing to take care of his wife as his wife has always taken care of him and their children. I feel some small sense of relief that she at least has a chance of survival. But for her, I fear that the power to create will be very, very limited.
Back in this air-conditioned hotel room I am uncomfortable with the juxtaposition in which I exist, the privileges that I will go home to, the memories of this experience that I will file away so that I can be more comfortable with myself. But I hope, in highlighting the powerlessness of so many others with this small story, that those of us that are fortunate enough to have the power to create, will use it, in some small way, to bring about change for the many, many powerless out there.
Monday 3.55am. Back in the UK. The phone rings. ‘Aunty has expired’.
Amanda Kanojia, Head of Administration, ARC, RSA