A Bond Betrayed on Rakhi Day
Experts have taken from the Book ‘Wise and Otherwise – A Salute to Life!” by Sudha Murty.
My work at the Infosys Foundation has brought me face to face with many women who have suffered a great deal for no fault of theirs. Most of them are uneducated and victims of exploitation. One of the objectives of our Foundation is to try and help these unlucky women as much as possible.
Those who slip into prostitution are almost always innocent women. Most have been forced into it at a young age and they find it difficult to escape. Many express a desire to leave the profession, but that is next to impossible. Since they have been in this ‘trade’ from a young age, they have not developed any other special skills. Hence they are not fit for employment and are unable to find alternative means of earning a livelihood. In those rare cases when a woman does manage to extricate herself from this miserable life, our society does not accept her.
In the last few years, I have had some experience in working for these unfortunate women. Initially, they would avoid talking to me. But on repeated visits, they opened up gradually and started speaking with me. The stories they narrated were heartbreaking. At times, I was really at a loss for what to say or how to react. Their agony pained me deeply.
It was on one such visit that I got to know Tara, a middle-aged gharwali (commercial sex worker) in a temple. Looking at Tara, I could tell that she had been a very beautiful woman in her younger days. Even now, she came across as someone who was bold and spirited. Tara did not know how to read and write and wanted my help because she thought I was a school teacher. That was fine with me.
‘If you know of any other lady teacher, please let me know. I want to learn to read and write,’ she told me the first time we met. ‘I don’t want to call her to my house. I will go wherever the teacher wants me to.’
Her zest for knowledge surprised me. I wanted to know more about her. Once or twice, I tried to broach the subject, but she was reluctant to talk about herself. She always seemed very sad.
It was Rakhi day. In northern Karnataka and the border areas of Maharashtra, this day is called Narali-Poornima, which literally means ‘to celebrate the full- moon day with coconuts’. I was in the area for a week, mainly visiting village schools in connection with our library project. There I bumped into Tara again. I still remember it was a bright, sunny day and Tara was buying bangles. I wanted to talk to her. How should I address her, I wondered. Since she was older than me, I decided to call her akka, which means elder sister in Kannada.
Tara was sitting on the steps of the temple, waiting for the crowd to disperse. I went towards her. She looked at me and smiled. I thought she was sad. Or was I sad? I didn’t know.
I tried to begin a conversation by returning her smile. ‘Tara akka, there is such a crowd because of Narali-Poornima. You will have to wait for a long time to get in.’
Suddenly, I sensed anger. I could see it in her eyes. She began to shout at me. ‘Teacher, don’t call me akka. I dislike that word. All these relationships, like brother and sister, exist in your world. Not in mine. Don’t address me like that. You can call me Tara, Tarabai, but not Tara akka. In my world there is only one relationship, that of a man and a woman.’
Tears rolled down my eyes. I understood the bitter truth behind what she said.
One of the volunteers who had accompanied me was very upset. He wanted to tell Tara who I was. I stopped him.
‘Tara, I am sorry if I hurt your feelings,’ I said politely. ‘I used the word akka because you are older than me. I’m sorry if that offended you.’
The atmosphere then changed dramatically. Tara started crying uncontrollably. The pallu of her green Irkal sari became wet with tears. Holding the bangles she had bought from the shop in one hand, she used the other to wipe her tears.
I put my hand on her shoulder. I did not speak. Our silence was much more meaningful than words. After some time, she stopped crying, but she still looked
very sad. I sent my volunteer to fetch a cup of tea for her. After a while, Tara calmed down.
She said, ‘Teacher, I am sorry I was rude to you. You have not made any mistake. After all, you have shown respect to me by calling me akka. Till this day, no one has ever used such a good word to address me. People call me by different names. I don’t want to repeat them to you. Akka brought back childhood memories.’
Tara continued talking. She spoke of her poverty and of losing her parents in an epidemic. A younger brother was all she had. She adored him and though she was only a child herself she found work as a coolie to look after him. But when she was twelve years old and her brother was only eleven, he sold her to an agent in a red light area. He had taken her there on the pretext of visiting the village fair. That was on a Narali-Poornima day.
It was now clear to me what she was going through sitting on the steps of that temple. It was Narali-Poornima day once again and the word akka must have triggered in her mind something she had been desperate to forget all her life.
Rakhi is not merely about a sister tying a thread on her brother’s wrist. It signifies the bond between a brother and a sister. And Tara, through no fault of hers, was pushed into her dreadful life by her own brother. On a Rakhi day.