By Iman Gewal


Pooja is 13 years old and in class 8 one of the local Government Model Schools. Pooja’s parents are from different states, her mother is from Orissa and her father is from Bengal, and they migrated to the city nine years ago, solely for the purpose of providing Pooja with better educational opportunities, as Pooja shares, “My Mummy and Papa came from the village for me. They want to make me a doctor… That’s why they came from the village so that I could become a doctor.… That’s why they both work so hard.”

Pooja’s mother works as a maid and her father works as a part-time cook in a small restaurant. Pooja and her family live in one of three rooms in the servants’ quarters of the house in which her mother works. The servants’ quarters are set at the back of the property and mostly hidden from the main house by trees and tall bushes. The family shares a bathroom with the other two families that also live in the servants’ quarters and have a small space of their own to cook in. 

Pooja’s mother has high expectations for Pooja’s education, and Pooja is very aware of these expectations. She is also aware of the fact that her mother had educational aspirations of her own that were not realized. Sharing her educational aspirations, Pooja’s mother tells: I had a dream from when I was young to do something, be someone. It was my heart’s desire to study. There was a lot of hardship for me to stay in school…I would sell my books at the end of year and use that money to buy pencils and notebooks…I gave tuitions to earn money for my education.… As I got older I stayed in hostels since no one at home had much education so who could explain things to me? I would stay at the hostel and cry a lot and study a lot.… I have five brothers and three sisters…I am the one who studied the most.

In 1971, when Pooja’s mother was in school, the national rural female literacy rate was 16.86%, and Orissa’s rural female literary rate was below 8% (Government of India, 2012a). It is a remarkable expression of Pooja’s mother’s resourcefulness and determination that she was able to graduate high school. Pooja’s mother wanted to become “someone,” which meant she wanted a professional career and wanted to wait to marry. There was tremendous pressure from the family, Pooja’s mother says, for her to marry but she resisted:

After I completed class 10 there was no one in my family who would support my schooling. They said, “What will you do if you study further?” My two older sisters were married and my family said it was time for me to get married. I said I will not get married. When Pooja’s mother was in class 10, she met Pooja’s father and the two fell in love. Pooja’s father wanted to get married but Pooja’s mother refused saying she was “fighting to become someone” and would marry him after she had found a “good” job. Opportunities for professional careers were limited for Pooja’s mother in the village and after she graduated class 12, she applied for a teaching position at a private school in her village. Instead of requiring the applicants to have a teaching certificate, the school required a monetary deposit. The job was for sale, and Pooja’s mother was willing to buy the job with the hope that this money would secure her a permanent job and fulfill her dream of “becoming someone.” Pooja’s mother shares her struggles to secure a job: After I finished plus 2 there was a private school…where I wanted to teach but they asked for a donation. So I went to the bank and got a loan. They had asked for Rs. 40,000 [approximately $670]. But someone else gave them Rs. 50,000 [approximately $833] and they got the job.

Corruption and malpractice kept Pooja’s mother from getting this job. Not one to give up easily, Pooja’s mother found out that the local doctor was looking for a nursing assistant and was willing to provide training on site. Just when Pooja’s mother was negotiating with the doctor for this job, Pooja’s father declared to her that he would kill himself if she did not marry him. In the two years he had been waiting for Pooja’s mother to finish her education and find a job, Pooja’s father had gotten married to another woman. Pooja’s paternal grandmother had passed away a few years earlier, he was the oldest son and his sisters were much younger than him so Pooja’s father’s family forced him to marry a young Bengali girl from the community since they needed “someone to do the housework.” Pooja’s mother was doubly reluctant to marry someone who was already married but says: “I refused and then I don’t know how it happened suddenly. Her [Pooja’s] dad said he would take his life if I did not marry him and by saying things like that I was forced to marry him.”

Going against tradition, Pooja’s mother says she “got married on my own” at twenty-two, well aware of the fact that she was going to be the second wife, and, despite the Hindu personal law that states polygamy is illegal. Before Pooja’s mother married her father, she made it clear that she wanted to continue studying and looking for a job. At the time of marriage, Pooja’s father agreed to these conditions, but, as Pooja’s mother shares, he did not honor his promise to her: He knew me when I was studying and he loved me. So his wish was to marry me… Before I got married I spoke with him and he said I could study…I got married and my husband did not let me study after the marriage…After I got married his father, uncles, and brother did not let me study. They said, “In our family we don’t let girls go out”… After marriage he (husband) went to the doctor with whom I applied to become a nurse and said, “She will not do any such dirty work. Her father is a pandit [priest].” By saying such lies he took away my chance at the job.… I have a lot of dukh [sorrow] in my life. It is for this dukh [sorrow] that I have come to the city.

Pooja’s mother believes that her dukh (sorrow) comes from the fact that she could not fulfill her heart’s desire to become “someone.” To ensure that her child would have every opportunity to become “someone,” Pooja’s mother only wanted one child. Since Pooja’s father already had two sons from his first wife he was willing to go along with Pooja’s mother on this. She is glad her only child is a daughter. It was Pooja’s mother who chose to migrate to the city when Pooja was four years old, her class 12 education helped her get a job as an errand girl at the university. Pooja’s mother shares that she enjoyed being a part of a prestigious educational institution but, within a week of accepting the job, she quit because the long hours meant Pooja was by herself for most of the day. New to the city, Pooja’s mother had not developed a community she could rely on for childcare, and, at that time, there were no institutionalized day cares available in the city. The need for childcare is just beginning to grow in India as more women are entering the work force and as the family structure is slowly changing from the traditional joint family (which afforded built in child care providers) to the newer nuclear family structure. Eventually Pooja’s mother settled on working as a maid cleaning houses as that afforded her the flexibility to work when Pooja was in school. In spite of her hard-earned class 12 education, Pooja’s mother now cleans other people’s bathrooms, a fact that motivates Pooja to do well in school. She feels obligated to fulfill her mother’s expectations, she feels the weight of her mother’s unfulfilled hopes, and she feels the burden of her mother’s sacrifices. Pooja grapples with the conflict between what she is really interested in and what her mother wants for her:

My first responsibility is towards my parents. They have sacrificed a lot to raise me. I mostly like painting and drawing. It’s because Mummy and Papa tell me that’s why I study. It’s not like I don’t like to study. I like to study but I like drawing the most…I do want to study as much as I can.

Pooja is a class monitor. Students who are doing well academically and command respect and co-operation from fellow classmates are nominated by the class teacher to be monitors. Pooja has near-perfect marks in all subjects except math. Pooja’s mother never misses a single parent-teacher conference. She has Pooja’s class teacher’s cell phone number programmed in her cell phone. She is proud that Pooja is a “good” student and she never hears a “single complaint” about Pooja from her teachers who only have “good things” to say. Pooja has decorated all the empty wall spaces of the room she shares with her parents with drawings of flowers, rainbows, grass, sunshine, and the names of people she loves.

Pooja’s mother wants her to study well and get a “good” job, she is however not clear of what a “good” job is. She assumes being a doctor is a “good” job but does not know what Pooja needs to do to become a doctor. Pooja’s mother asks anyone she can to give her more information about becoming a doctor. She is finding out that the process of becoming a doctor is a costly one and has begun to expand “good” jobs to include nursing and teaching. Ultimately Pooja’s mother wants Pooja to study so she can “stand on her own two feet” and does not want Pooja to “get caught like I did.” Pooja’s mother is the only parent who has opened a savings account at the local post office to save for Pooja’s education.

Pooja dreams of becoming a doctor and having her own clinic in the future. She shares: “I want to study as much as I can. After plus 2 I want to become a doctor. For that I have to study a lot. I actually do not know what I need to become a doctor. If there was someone older than me who was studying to be a doctor I could have asked them but I do not know anyone who is studying to be a doctor or is a doctor.… I keep asking my friends if they know what classes I need to take to become a doctor.… In ten years I hope I will have my own clinic in which I will have both my Mummy and Papa sitting at the front desk.”

Elizabeth GersabeckComment