Twenty years have passed since Ayesha Begum’s husband, inebriated with so much country liquor that he was completely delirious, stumbled into an open well, and drowned. I do not know if his last thoughts in this world lurched at all to his young wife, then just 25 years old, whom he left behind with five small children to tend. It is equally hard to estimate whether his exit marked more a redemption for Ayesha, from hopeless years of battering and abuse, or the inception of a new chapter of even greater travail and dispossession. It probably was both.
Ayesha was only nine when her father married her off to a 15-year-old rickshaw puller. From the first day after her wedding, Ayesha was dispatched by her elder brother-in-law with only a roti to sustain her through the day, to earn her keep as a farm labourer, weeding, sowing and transplanting in the paddy fields of the landlords. Before she left for the fields, she had to complete all the chores of the household, so she woke long before dawn. Still a young child, she was unused to such hard labour and her back and little fingers ached. Her husband splurged all his earnings on country liquor.
The meaning of marriage for Ayesha was only days almost without end of unrelieved drudgery and toil, nights of her husband’s drunken bouts and beatings, punctuated by a series of pregnancies. The scars of his thrashing are still visible on her body two decades later. What was most memorable about her periodic pregnancies was that although she had to slave for wages until the day she delivered every time, she could rest for a ritual 40 days after each pregnancy. As a young widow, custom again demanded the same 40 days of iddat. These are the only days of rest that she can recall in her life ever since her father gave her away in matrimony when she was only nine years old.
After the iddat was concluded, Ayesha begged her husband’s brothers to shelter her and her children. They turned her away with the merciless taunt, “The way you brought these children into the world, in the same way it is up to you to raise them. Do not depend on us for anything.” Decades later, she looks back at her entire life since then — of unremitting struggle and want — as her response to this taunt, a vindication to her husband’s family of her strength and capacity to raise her children without their help.
For three days after she was banished as a young widow from her husband’s home, she sat hungry with her children on the roadside in the village, begging for food. As she sat with her palms outstretched, she fiercely hardened her heart. The choices before her were cruel and stark. Two girls, one four years old and the other six, she sent as domestic workers in homes in Hyderabad. Each was paid board and Rs. 25 every month. Her older boy began working at a roadside restaurant, and was paid Rs. 50. Only one son Ayesha’s mother was willing to take in and support, and as a result, he was the only one who could study, up to class 7, in a bridge education camp run by an organisation for the education of thousands of child workers called the MV Foundation.
Ayesha herself found work as a road construction labourer near her village. When all the workers ate lunch by the construction site, she tried to sleep in the shade behind the bushes. When hunger pangs grew more insistent, she drank large quantities of water then tied her sari edge tightly around her stomach and continued doggedly to work. At night if the children cried and she had nothing to feed them, she pleaded with workers in neighbouring workers’ tents for gangi (starch water which is drained out after rice is cooked). Each child slept fitfully after drinking a few spoonfuls of gangi. “If the poor have to live”, she says philosophically, “they have to learn to beg for food”. Sometimes in the evenings, after completing her work at the road construction site, she found work in other people’s homes. In return, they gave her a few dry rotis that the entire family relished.
When the village road was completed, Ayesha also moved to the metropolis, and earned Rs. 150 rupees as a live-in domestic help. The older boy and girl, when in their teens, were employed in a factory for moulding plastic boxes. One day, the girl Mehmooda’s right hand got tangled in the moulding machine, and she traumatically lost three fingers.
When her elder daughter Shahnaz turned 17, Ayesha arranged her marriage to a man twice her age whose wife had left him with three children, because he agreed to accept Shahnaz without any demands of dowry. But on the night of the nikaah, he first complained that the wedding feast did not include mutton, and Ayesha hastily bought meat in three instalments and cooked each round and served the wedding party before his guests were finally satisfied. Then he demanded dowry that must be in his hands before he consented to the wedding: five sets of clothes, metal utensils, a water tank, a watch, beddings… his list was endless. Ayesha was frantic, but her neighbours and sons all quickly pooled money and appeased all his extortions.
Things don’t change
But in her husband’s home, Shahnaz’s fate was no different from her mother’s. He also drank and beat her, and demanded that she bring gold and silver from her mother’s home. He repaired spectacles in his brother’s shop, but he sent her out to earn from domestic work. She delivered a boy, and he wanted to give him away in adoption to his childless sister. After a nightmarish evening when he thrashed not just his wife but also her brother and mother, the neighbours again pooled money and the family escaped in the dead of the night to their village Narayanpur. It was a joyless homecoming for the widow and her children to the village where she had been given in marriage as a young child, after 15 years of self-imposed exile in Hyderabad.
Mehmooda’s wedding was an even bigger challenge. She was not just the daughter of an indigent widow: she also has lost three fingers in her right hand in the accident in the factory. Her bridegroom too was married with four children, the oldest just a few years younger to her.
With three grown sons, Ayesha Begum naturally hoped for a life of some peace at last. But her oldest son who grazes cattle for a Reddy landlord, drinks like his father and rarely brings any money home. He plans to marry and live separately, unwilling to carry the burdens of a widowed mother and separated sister, and their small children. Her second son has also turned out to be a waster, but his obsession is not for alcohol but cricket; when not watching or playing cricket, he just loiters with his friends in the village. Her last son was the most caring, but tragically he fell on his head from an overcrowded truck of labourers as a teenager, and lost his mental balance since. He wandered away from his home one day, and Ayesha does not know if he will ever return home.
Every festival of Eid, her eldest son buys her a new sari. This is her only new garment in the year. She has no jewellery and has never worn any form of metal. Her husband’s family has also fallen into hard times. They now invite her to family weddings, overlooking even her scandalous alliance with the fruit-seller. But Ayesha is proud, and steadfast in her resolve never to either forgive them or step into their home through her entire life. “When my husband died, they challenged me to bring up my five children, and I have, without ever once stretching my palm out to them”, she declares proudly.
And yet, she adds wistfully, “All that I can recall of my life has been the struggle to bring home food. It is true that I have lived my life. But is this the way a life should be lived for anyone — struggling just to keep alive every single day?”