by Nissi Undurthi
Tall coconut trees, dirt road, and small sweatshops along the narrow road–these are the images that flash before my eyes as I think of my village. Located in the coastal area of South India, my village provided for a perfect backdrop for a wonderful childhood. Fifteen years of my life there holds such fond memories with lots of fun and laughter as well as experiences that I will continue to learn from and encounters I am forever impacted by.
As a child, many of my memories include not only my two siblings but also a lot of other children from my street as we all played, studied, and often ate together. Every evening after school, the dirt road that comes off from the main road became our playground with occasional interruptions from cyclists, herds of goats or buffaloes. We had many local games such as “kho-kho” or “kabaddi” or cricket, most of which involved lots of running around, singing or shouting out to other players. Often, we played until our moms yelled for us to come home for dinner. Studying was also a lot of fun as we shared text books and quizzed each other on lessons. At one point in time, one of us acquired a bicycle from their older sibling and our evenings filled with us each taking turns learning to ride it. In our group, we all came from different families, caste backgrounds, and religions, however, we had shared fun memories and no differences were ever expressed.
Unfortunately, we did not realize then that outside our small circle it was very different, and that there was a limit to our times together. By the time I was in upper middle school, a lot of changes happened. Not every one of us continued school. Some of the girls I knew got married. A few boys started following their fathers into working in the fields. Some were put in boarding schools.
South Indian family structure traditionally is built on strict patriarchal roots and values. While women and children are important members of the family, the husband/father is the head of the family and the primary (or often sole) decision maker. In more traditional families, this honor belongs to the grandfather. The hierarchy goes like this: grandfather, grandmother, father, mother, any male children, and any female children regardless of who’s older or younger. All families in the community have rules of behavior adhering to their social divisions of caste, social status, and religion. While all children have the responsibility of maintaining family honor and traditions, the way these are lived out differ for boys and girls. Families who send their children to schools expect them to succeed in order to maintain or improve their financial means. There is always an expectation that the children will give back to their family and community. Despite a free education in the local public schools, male children often follow their parents to work in the paddy fields, while female children are restricted to a certain number of years of schooling–after which they are confined to home life to prepare for marriage or be married off. Girls in my village also have a specific responsibility to keep themselves pure and innocent, protecting their family’s honor by protecting their body. Often, girls of age are restricted from going outside to avoid contact with potential danger whether it is for play or school.
Out of the many stories I have been a part of in my village, the story of Vinayak always saddens me. I met him when I was in middle school and he would call me “Akka,” aka “older sister.” He was raised by a single mother and has a younger brother. For a couple of years, he went to school and was on his way to fulfilling his expectation of soon helping his family through his education. However, because of bad friendships he dropped out of school. The more he started to do things that upset our community, the more he was reprimanded and isolated. One day, he attempted to steal from the house of a village elder and was caught in the act. That was the last straw. He was permanently seen as a negative influence in our community and the elders stopped guiding him. He was still a teenager at the time.
When I think of him, I think of how we played and laughed together. I think of all the possibilities of a bright future that was halted. I think of his mother weeping and yearning to see him change. I also think of how young he was, with a full life ahead of him. A part of my hope for my community draws me to this life I observed and interacted.
My hope is to see children like this have second chances, for them to have a gentle and kind community who will continue to love and encourage them for better, in spite of setbacks and harmful choices that are made. I want to be a part of building kind communities where education is encouraged above all, status and caste differences have no place at all, children are more valued, girls are not seen as a financial burden due to dowries, and children coming from unfortunate circumstances have equal-access to opportunities and an equal-footing to compete with their peers.
Childhood anywhere is valuable and the initial experiences and encounters often influence and impact us strongly and for a long time. Some of the hindrances to a better childhood in my village are cultural and as a result, solutions need to be sensitive to that context When families and individuals come together to not only recognize this importance but also implement ways to better the life of children and strive to provide and encourage the necessary elements such as education, then that becomes the beginning for resilient communities.