Cycling to freedom!

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Village scene- Painting by Dominique Amendola

Gauri was brilliant, at least she believed so. She knew it in her mind that she just needed that one chance to break free and once she did there was no stopping her. Gauri lived in a village in Maharashtra called Melhur.  Melhur was a small village with a population of not more than 200 people. The village was essentially that of farmers. There was just one general shop, a temple and a municipal school that mostly remained vacant not because of lack of students but lack of teachers. Gauri loved school. Though now at 16, she only has very faint memory of it. Her schooling was stopped as soon as her marriage was fixed with Ganpatrao who was relatively a well to do farmer in the village. Gauri didn’t mind the marriage and even if she did you would never know. Women in her household were never asked for their opinion. After six months of marriage, Ganpatrao who was 48 died of a heart attack and Gauri was sent back home.

In Indian villages women like Gauri don’t really have it easy. Gauri was cursed, abused and pitied all the time. Gauri didn’t really feel any remorse. In her mind death of Ganpatrao was not really such a bad thing. She hardly knew Ganpatrao or had enough time to fall in love with him. She felt nothing.  All her family and friends would come to meet her and cry till the last drop of tear in their eyes and tell her how unlucky she was. This constant nagging would not really affect her but she hated the fact that her parents had to put up with all the drama. Sometimes the situation would also get funny. A distant aunt came home and started beating her chest while crying. (It is a dramatic way to show remorse in India) Gauri’s brother asked her not to hit her chest so hard or she too would get a heart attack. She stopped immediately but Gauri laughed her heart out. Much to her mother’s fury. The nagging and pitying continued for days and weeks becoming a constant feature in a very young Gauri’s life.

Ramu, her little brother being the boy got more pocket-money and more education than her. She would find it really unfair. She would never say anything about this to her father. She couldn’t , as now more than ever she felt like she was just an additional responsibility that the family had to deal with all their lives. Her life was a routine. She would get up early in the morning and go to milk the cows. Then walk 8 kms everyday to fetch water from the lake near the Someshwar temple and walk back home. She would have lunch and again join her parents on the farm. In the evening she would wash clothes, have dinner and go to sleep. Every day the same routine followed. Gauri’s brother would not have to do half of her work. She would realise that but would feel guilty of the jealousy and sometimes hatred she felt towards her own brother.

The time that she loved the most in her day was when she walked through the forest with her friend Swati to fetch water. They would play games, climb trees or catch butterflies. On her way she would always see a man with his wife sitting at the back on his cycle riding along. When she saw them she would picture herself sitting at the back of the cycle, feeling the beautiful breeze brush her face. The cycle represented freedom.  If she could sit on it she could just ride away from all  the cruelty and sadness of her life. The same image also saddened her. She knew she would never have a husband, a man to ride along with her.  She would come home and sometimes cry herself to sleep.

On Ramu’s 15th birthday their father got him a cycle. Looking at that cycle Gauri’s eyes light up. It was her dream to sit on this thing and ride on it. She would go with her brother to the lake sitting behind him. When she rode she felt something was missing. She didn’t really feel free. She was still dependent on her brother after all. She decided she had to learn to ride the cycle. She knew her father would never approve of this. Her brother would be too scared to go behind his fathers back  and help her out. Women in their village were not allowed or ever seen cycling. She knew the only way to do this was to blackmail him. Her brother robbed 2 rupees daily from the piggy bank that was kept near the temple in the house. She told him that she knows about the robbing and if he doesn’t teach her to ride the cycle she would go and tell father. Her plan worked. They decide that every night once everyone is asleep they would sneak out and go to the nearby hill to cycle.

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There is nothing more satisfying than finding your own self!

Gauri after her hard days work would still find strength to do this. Out of the entire day those two hours spent on a cycle was the only time she felt happy. It would be pitch dark on the hill and the only source of light would be the lantern that her brother carried. She would fall down many times and come home with fresh bruises every morning. The bruises would go unnoticed beneath her saree. She would never complain. This time when she saw the same man and woman on their cycle, on her way to fetch water, she smiled to herself. She didn’t need that man there anymore she could ride that cycle on her own.

An NGO called Saheli would visit Melhur every month. They would get medicines, clothes, books, etc to the village. One day they got a truck little bigger than the usual. Everybody looked curiously at the truck. When they started unloading, the villagers saw 7 cycles come out of it. Gauri looked at the cycles with amazement. The volunteer told all the villagers that these cycles will be given to women and not men. Cycles will help women to go to school, to fetch water and do so many chores that they would want to do in much lesser time. The head volunteer asked the village women to come ahead and try it. None of them came. For Gauri, she knew it was a moment that could change things. She looked over to her parents who were laughing with all the other villagers at the idea of women cycling. While she was lost in thought she felt a hand on her hand. “Gauri you should go and take that cycle. GO. NOW.” It was Ramu standing beside her. Gauri felt her heart beating quicker, unable to face the excitement. Ramu took her hand and held it up. Gauri slowly started walking forward towards her very own cycle.

Gauri approached the cycle and put her hand on the handle. She pulled her saree a little higher, put her one feet on one pedal and other across and started cycling. The volunteer came forward to help her.  Gauri told her she didn’t need her help. Gauri pedaled her cycle never looking back. She cycled away from her parents who always told her she was inferior, she cycled away from the people of her village who nagged at her all her life and told her that it was all her fault and she did not deserve to be happy. She cycled away from dependence on a man for her being. The cycle became her symbol of freedom, overcoming fear, of telling herself that her opinion mattered and that there is nothing in the world that she cannot achieve once she sets her mind on it.

In the last two years Melhur has got 20 cycles, all belonging to the women of the village. The NGO Saheli has made Gauri the in-charge of their women empowerment project in the village. Gauri’s next goal is to again start her education from where she left. She has no doubts about achieving that goal too. The cycle parked near her door reminds her everyday to never doubt herself, ever!

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