Portraits

“When push comes to shove, the boy gets the egg and the girl gets the rice”.

It is only after an hour of pressing, shoo-ing away of adults, shifting to a quieter area and incessant demands to ‘not be shy‘ and ‘say what you truly feel’ that Velmuri, the children’s panchayat female leader (who just turned 18 last Monday) blurts out the statement with an expression that is equal parts frustrated and smug. Till then, there had been a fair bit of boasting, loud claims of strength and equality by the girls, and the boys from the back expressing their view that the village of Punnupakkam was fine as it was. Velmuri though hits a nerve, striking a point of contention, her words fall on the atmosphere of the Panchayat crudely. Velmuri, with her oiled hair slicked back into a braid, mature face and simple gold necklace dipping into the grooves of her collar bones is leader for a reason. Wearing on her slim shoulders the air of a no-nonsense school principal and weaving through a group of 50 children who range from 5 to 18 with meticulousness, she is alert, perceptive, witty and diplomatic. Every time we return to Punnupakkam it is her waiting in front of the throngs of eager, receptive youth with her hands folded in traditional Indian greeting – she smiles, almost in surprise that we actually returned, and says ‘Vannakam’ – ‘Welcome’.

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Velmuri is a clear example of not only someone who would grasp the ideas of 4th wave feminism and our EMPOWER project with ease, but will also work to embody the ideas she comes into contact with into her adulthood. It is in the way she navigates through her village that my own ideas on female empowerment and gender in India expand, because it isn’t simply about being educated and working. So much of the ideas we seek to spread and reflect on in this country are expressed informally, in bus-stops and shops, in temple doorways and airports, in how girls introduce their brothers and fathers, and how boys wait near bus-stands and teashops for the girl they love. Velmuri is larger than the gender role she has been assigned, asserts dominance with a temperament of stability, and speaks with a wiseness much beyond her years and village walls – when we walk past a group of 18 year old boys who want to both flirt and also ask questions, she turns to us and says “Don’t worry, they’re good boys, I grew up with them.”

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In a circle of boys, all the ones under 16 stand up straight and state one by one their dream of becoming a policeman. Looking up at us, expressing the ardor of youth, they wish to protect the weak, fight the corrupt and become Herculean legends within their districts. Selvam, 18, who from our first visit never had any qualms introducing himself, confidently states that he will be becoming a criminal lawyer. Thin, in a clean blue shirt and an open, inviting face, he understands truths that escape the boyish dreams of his peers. When i ask him why all the boys want to be cops and all the girls want to be teachers, he states “it’s not like girls aren’t allowed to be cops, if they wanted to they can. Its a matter of ambition isn’t it.”

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Between Velmuri and Selvam, there is a distinct sense that both of them are equipped with knowledge and statistics the others aren’t – but each approach progress differently. Velmuri moves with the skeptical and judgemental spirit of someone who has understood the negative undercurrent of society, and seeks truth from all her interactions. Selvam operates with far-reaching optimism, believing in individual spirit, hoping to generate advancement through belief that things are ‘not that bad, they can get better, and in-fact they will.’ And in someways their attitudes towards their village and their gender are both expressions of modern feminist thought, both are necessary in India’s gender narrative, and both fall within a space of liberal dialogue seeking change.

In the journey of attempting to find out where India stands as a nation in regards to gender equality, multiple narratives and characters of differing strength and structure weave in and out of an astonishing web. And in an age of information and interaction, the voices of the youth, the rural and multiple castes and religions pour out from behind straw huts, cement school walls, children’s panchayat’s and fruit stalls, flowing like the River Ganges, Yamuna and Kaveri into an ocean of confusing attitudes, tumultuous currents but nonetheless slow churning progress. In the story of the egg and the rice, Velmuri shares that the worth of a male child still remains higher, regardless of what everyone tells you. All things that could increase opportunity in health, wealth and education tend to be directed to the male offspring if times get tough. The girls nod their heads vigorously. Some of the elders laugh, as if to say “It is what it is sometimes”. The boys look, interestingly enough, embarrassed, feeling uncomfortable that we may think they are at fault for these age-old cultural customs. After some heated back and forth between the kids, there seems to be an agreement though.

“Our village will change though, we’re going to make it better”. Velmuri scans the crowd of girls beside her, nods, and then smiles.

– PR.

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