Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Vanishing Girl

I’ve seen it happen so many times, it shouldn’t surprise me, disturb me or affect me in any way, and yet it always does. I’m thinking of the vanishing Indian girls I have met over time. Here in the West we see see them growing up in the usual way. The fits, the starts, the moods, the dresses, the parties. They stamp their feet and scream “I hate you” before storming up to their rooms. You know it’s all fine when that happens. At least that’s what I’m told that happens, in a circuitous kind of way, over here in the land of the setting sun..

Courtesy The Hindu
Yet in rural India it’s all very different. When the girl goes into puberty, a lot of things start to happen very quickly, not only within the complicated chemical circuitry of her own body, but in the family body too there’s a whole load of frantic activity taking place. The family store room is raided for camphor, turmeric and kumkum red powder. There is great excitement generally as older sisters and carefully selected aunties are summoned to the family house. Senior male members gather together bundles of rupees and cycle or motor themselves to the out-caste village where the Drummers and Nadhaswaramare summoned to attend the house at 8 pm.

All through the night drummers are drumming and people are excitedly talking about the fact that the girl is now technically, biologically ready for marriage. Nothing is really going to happen, apart from all the clamour and excitement, but the gossip, even though marriage is a long way off, is mostly about who the husband might be. Nothing is known, nobody usually knows as only a few days earlier she was a girl, but over here, people will speculate further down down the road. The more uncertainty there is, there more is there talk, and when eventually a husband is decided upon, even more village talk is generated, most likely all about the nest of future uncertainties this might create.

I wake up groggily from such interrupted and clanging sleep, worried at what it must be like for the poor girl who has been kept awake all night, seated in the small throne they have created for her. I need to go to see her, for the last few minutes she is with us. I approach the throng and the crowd gives way as I approach to have a look. She smiles a little wanly at me and asks if I am all right. I return the courtesy, asking if she got any sleep, even though I know she didn’t. She is really fazed by now. She’s getting ready to boost herself into another bout of false, second wakeful day, a day which is to be her first as well as her last.

Aunties, sisters and cousins suddenly appear to be thick upon the ground. Gathering thicker and thicker they begin to swarm and cluster round her. The men are thinning out. You begin to notice that they are paying their respects and beginning to walk away and go about their duties. It’s time for me to pay mine and I look upon her for the last time ever. Childhood memories flood into my mind, and perhaps they do into hers as well. She rushes forward for a hug, which I return as best I can before giving her a peck on the cheek and wishing her good luck: a select gaggle of women will be gathering round her now, making preparations to take her completely away.

And then something very mysterious happens. She’s carried off to an unknown place, known only to a few select female relatives. She will be moved to this secret location for 3 or 4 days. No man is allowed to know any detail of the process which will be taking place. The women are so tight-lipped about what happens during those few days, you couldn’t slide in a sheet of rice paper, and even if you could the moisture from the lips would turn it gradually to pap and only form a tighter seal.

When she makes her return to society the little girl has gone. The walk is different, the entire body-language, the dress the face itself. From the inside out she has gone and in her place stands a confident young woman who will greet you in Namaskaram. From this point on, she will tend to shun the company of men, and all her dealings with them will be in a lighter, firmer, altogether more respectful mode. It leaves you feeling kind of stunned, until you start to look at other folks. Any hunt for the ones you knew may well end in failure. No-one’s quite the same. Society is changing in every direction. Nothing remains the same for very long.

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