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Three thousand stitches, p.2
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       Three Thousand Stitches, p.2

           Sudha Murty
 
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  I said, ‘Abhay, now you know how hard social work is. It takes extreme commitment and persistence to keep going. You can go back to Delhi with the satisfaction of having made a difference to so many lives. You are a good human being and I’m sure that this little experience will stay with you and help you later.’

  He smiled and replied in impeccable Kannada, ‘Who said that I wanted to go back to Delhi? I’ve decided to stay in Karnataka and complete this project.’

  ‘Abhay, this is serious work. You are young and that’s a great disadvantage in this line of work and . . .’ My voice faded away. I didn’t know what else to say!

  ‘Don’t worry about that, ma’am! You gave me the best job I could possibly have. I thought that you might give me a desk job. I never imagined that you’d give me fieldwork, that too, the privilege of working with the devadasis. This past year has made me realize their agony and unbearable hardships. Knowing that, how can I ever work anywhere apart from here?’

  I was astonished at such sincerity and compassion in one so young. I offered him a stipend to help with his expenses but he stopped me with a show of his hand, ‘I don’t need that much. I already have a scooter and a few sets of clothes. I just need two meals a day, a roof over my head and a little money for petrol. That’s it.’

  I gazed at him fondly and knew that I was seeing a man who had found his purpose in life. He bid goodbye and left my office with determined strides.

  Obviously, Abhay became the project lead, and I supported him wholeheartedly, taking care to converse with him regularly about the project’s progress.

  One day, I met with the devadasis and inquired about the welfare of their children.

  ‘Our greatest difficulty is supporting our children’s education,’ they said. ‘Most of the time, we can’t afford their school fees and then we have to go back to what we know to get quick money.’

  ‘We will take care of all your children’s educational expenses irrespective of which class they are in. But that means that you must not continue being a devadasi, no matter what,’ I replied firmly.

  The women agreed without hesitation. They had come to trust Abhay and me and knew that we would keep our word.

  Hundreds of children were enrolled in the project—some went on to do professional courses while others went on to complete their primary, middle or high school classes. We held camps on AIDS awareness and prevention and sponsored street art and plays to educate the women and children on various medical issues—including the simple fact that infected hair is not an indication that one must become a devadasi. Rather, it is a simple curable disease that causes the hair to stick together and become matted over time. The women got themselves treated and some of them even had their heads shaved.

  Eventually, we were able to get them loans by becoming their guarantors. Often, the women would tell me, ‘Akka, please help us get a loan. If we can’t repay it, then it is as good as cheating you and you know that we’ll never do that.’ By this time I knew in my heart that a rich man might cheat me but our devadasis never would. They had great faith in me and I in them.

  On the other hand, life became more dangerous for Abhay and me. We received death threats from pimps, local goons and others through phone calls, letters and messages. I was scared more for Abhay than myself. Though I asked for police protection, Abhay flatly refused and said, ‘Our devadasis will protect me. Don’t worry about me.’

  A few weeks later, some pimps threw acid on three devadasis who had left their profession for good. But we all still refused to give up. The plastic surgery the victims underwent helped to bring back their confidence. They would not be intimidated. Our strength came from these women who were collectively trying to leave this hated profession. Though the government supplemented their income, many also started rearing goats, cows and buffaloes.

  Over time, we established small schools that offered night classes which the devadasis could attend. It was an uphill battle that took years of effort from everybody involved. After twelve years, some of the women met me to discuss a particular issue.

  ‘Akka, we want to start a bank, but we are afraid to do it on our own.’

  ‘What do you think happens in a bank?’ I asked.

  ‘Well, you need a lot of money to start a bank or even have an account. You must wear expensive clothes. We’ve seen that bankers usually wear suits and ties and sit in air-conditioned offices, but we don’t have money for such things, Akka.’

  After they brought this problem to our attention, Abhay and I sat down with the women and explained the basics of banking to them. A few professionals were consulted, and under their guidance, they started a bank of their own, with the exception of a few legal and administrative services that we provided. However, we insisted that the bank employees and shareholders should be restricted only to the devadasi community. So finally, the women were able to save money through fixed deposits and obtain low-interest loans. All profits had to be shared with the bank members. Eventually, the bank grew and the women themselves became its directors and took over its running.

  Less than three years later, the bank had Rs 80 lakh in deposits and provided employment to former devadasis, but its most important achievement was that almost 3000 women were out of the devadasi system.

  On their third anniversary, I received a letter from the bank.

  We are very happy to share that three years have passed since the bank was started. Now, the bank is of sound financial health and none of us practise or make any money through the devadasi tradition. We have each paid a hundred rupees and have three lakhs saved for a big celebration. We have rented out a hall and arranged lunch for everyone. Please come and join us for our big day. Akka, you are very dear to us and we want you to be our chief guest for the occasion. You have travelled hundreds of times at your own cost and spent endless money for our sake even though we are strangers. This time, we want to book a round-trip air-conditioned Volvo bus ticket, a good hotel and an all-expenses-paid trip for you. Our money has been earned legally, ethically and morally. We are sure that you won’t refuse our humble and earnest request.

  Tears welled up in my eyes. Seventeen years ago, chappals were my reward, but now, they wanted to pay for my travel to the best of their ability. I knew how much the comfort of an air-conditioned Volvo bus and a hotel meant to them.

  I decided to attend the function at my expense.

  On the day of the function, I found that there were no politicians or garlands or long speeches as was typical. It was a simple event. At first, some women sang a song of agony written by the devadasis. Then another group came and described their experiences on their journey to independence. Their children, many of whom had become doctors, nurses, lawyers, clerks, government employees, teachers, railway employees and bank officers, came and thanked their mothers and the organization for supporting their education.

  And then it was my turn to speak.

  I stood there, and my words suddenly failed me. My mind went blank, and then, distantly, I remembered my father’s words: ‘I will feel very proud knowing that I gave birth to a daughter who helped ten helpless women make the most difficult transition from being sex workers to independent women.’

  I am usually a spontaneous speaker but on that day, I was too choked with emotion. I didn’t know where to begin. For the first time in my life, I felt that the day I meet God, I will be able to stand up straight and say confidently, ‘You’ve given me a lot in this lifetime, and I hope that I have returned at least something. I’ve served 3000 of your children in the best way I could, relieving them of the meaningless and cruel devadasi system. Your children are your flowers and I am returning them to you.’

  Then my eyes fell on the women. They were so eager to listen to me. They wanted to hear what I had to say. Abhay was there too, looking overwhelmed by everything they had done for us.

  I quoted a Sanskrit shloka my grandfather had taught me when I was six years old: ‘O God, I don’t need a kingdom nor do
I desire to be an emperor. I don’t want rebirth or the golden vessels or heaven. I don’t need anything from you. O Lord, if you want to give me something, then give me a soft heart and hard hands, so that I can wipe the tears of others.’

  Silently, I came back to my chair. I didn’t know what the women must be thinking or feeling at that moment.

  An old devadasi climbed up on to the stage and stood there proudly. With a firm voice, she said, ‘We want to give our akka a special gift. It is an embroidered bedspread and each of us has stitched some portion of it. So there are three thousand stitches. It may not look beautiful but we all wanted to be present in this bedspread.’ Then she looked straight at me and continued, ‘This is from our hearts to yours. This will keep you cool in the summer and warm in the winter—just like our affection towards you. You were by our side during our difficult times, and we want to be with you too.’

  It is the best gift I have ever received.

  2

  How to Beat the Boys

  Recently, when I visited the US, I had to speak to a crowd of both students and highly successful people. I always prefer interacting with the audience, so I opened the floor to questions.

  After several questions were asked, a middle-aged man stood to speak. ‘Ma’am, you are very confident and clear in communicating your thoughts. You are absolutely at ease while talking to us . . . ’

  I was direct. ‘Please don’t praise me. Ask me your question.’

  ‘I think you must have studied abroad or done your MBA from a university in the West. Is that what gives you such confidence?’ he asked.

  Without wasting a second, I replied, ‘It comes from my B.V.B.’

  He seemed puzzled. ‘What do you mean—my B.V.B.?’

  I smiled. ‘I’m talking about the Basappa Veerappa Bhoomaraddi College of Engineering and Technology in Hubli, a medium-sized town in the state of Karnataka in India. I have never studied outside of India. The only reason I stand here before you is because of that college.’

  In a lighter vein, I continued, ‘I’m sure that the young people in the software industry who are present here today will appreciate the contribution of Infosys to India and to the US. Infosys has made Bengaluru, Karnataka and India proud. Had I not been in B.V.B., I would not have become an engineer. If I wasn’t an engineer, then I wouldn’t have been able to support my husband. And if my husband didn’t have his family’s backing, he may or may not have had the chance to establish Infosys at all! In that case, all of you wouldn’t have gathered here today to hear me speak.’

  Everyone clapped and laughed, but I really meant what I said. After the session got over and the crowd left, I felt tired and chose to sit alone on a couch nearby.

  My mind went back to 1968. I was a seventeen-year-old girl with an abundance of courage, confidence and the dream to become an engineer. I came from an educated, though middle-class, conservative Brahmin family. My father was a professor of obstetrics and gynaecology in Karnataka Medical College at Hubli, while my mother was a schoolteacher before she got married.

  I finished my pre-university exams with excellent marks and told my family that I wanted to pursue engineering. I had always been fascinated with science, even more so with its application. Engineering was one of those branches of science that would allow me to utilize my creativity, especially in design. But it was as if I had dropped a bomb inside our house.

  The immediate reaction was of shock. Engineering was clearly an all-male domain and hence considered a taboo for girls in those days. There was no questioning the status quo, wherein girls were expected to be in the company of other female students in a medical or science college. The idea of a woman entering the engineering field had possibly never popped up in anyone’s mind. It was akin to expecting pigs to fly.

  I was my grandmother’s favourite granddaughter, but even she looked at me with disdain and said, ‘If you go ahead and do this, no man from north Karnataka will marry you. Who wants to marry a woman engineer? I am so disappointed in you.’ My grandmother never thought that I would do anything she disapproved of. However, she also didn’t know that in the city of Mysore, across the river of Tungabhadra, lived a man named Narayana Murthy who would later want to marry me.

  My grandfather, a history teacher and my first guru to teach me reading and writing, only mildly opposed it. ‘My child, you are wonderful at history. Why can’t you do something in this field? You could be a great scholar one day. Don’t chase a dry subject like engineering.’

  My mother, who was extremely proficient in mathematics, said, ‘You are good in maths. Why don’t you complete your post-graduation in mathematics and get a job as a professor? You can easily work in a college after you get married instead of being a hard-core engineer struggling to balance family and work.’

  My father, a liberal man who believed in education for women, thought for a moment and said, ‘I think that you should pursue medicine. You are excellent with people and languages. To tell you the truth, I don’t know much about engineering. We don’t have a single engineer in our family. It is a male-dominated industry and you may not find another girl in your class. What if you have to spend four years without a real friend to talk to? Think about it. However, the decision is yours and I will support you.’

  Many of my aunts also thought that no one would marry me if I chose engineering. This would possibly entail that I marry somebody from another community, an absolutely unheard of thing in those days.

  However, I didn’t care. As a student of history, I had read Hiuen Tsang’s book Si-Yu-Ki. Before Tsang’s travel to India, everybody discouraged him from making the journey on foot, but he refused to listen and decided to go. In time, he became famous for his seventeen-year-long journey to India. Taking courage from Tsang, I told my family, ‘I want to do engineering. Come what may, I am ready for the consequences of my actions.’

  I filled out the application form for B.V.B. College of Engineering and Technology, submitted it and soon received the news that I had been selected to the college on the basis of my marks. I was ecstatic, but little did I know that the college staff was discomfited by this development.

  The principal at the time was B.C. Khanapure, who happened to know my father. They both met at a barber shop one day and the principal expressed his genuine anguish at what he perceived to be an awkward situation. He told my father, ‘Doctor Sahib, I know that your daughter is very intelligent and that she has been given admission only because of merit, but I’m afraid we have some problems. She will be the only girl in college. It is going to be difficult for her. First, we don’t have a ladies’ toilet on campus. We don’t have a ladies’ room for her to relax either. Second, our boys are young with raging hormones and I am sure that they will trouble her. They may not do anything in front of the staff but they will definitely do something later. They may not cooperate with her or help her because they are not used to talking to girls. As a father of four daughters, I am concerned about yours too. Can you tell her to change her mind for her own sake?’

  My father replied, ‘I agree with you, Professor Sahib. I know you mean well, but my daughter is hell-bent on pursuing engineering. Frankly, she’s not doing anything wrong. So I have decided to let her pursue it.’

  ‘In that case, Doctor Sahib, I have a small request. Please ask her to wear a sari to college as it is a man’s world out there and the sari will be an appropriate dress for the environment she will be in. She should not talk to the boys unnecessarily because that will give rise to rumours and that’s never good for a girl in our society. Also, tell her to avoid going to the college canteen and spending time there with the boys.’

  My father came back and told me about this conversation. I readily agreed to all of the requests since I had no intention of changing my mind.

  Eventually, I would become friendly with some of the boys, but I always knew where to draw the line. The truth is that it were these same boys who would teach me some of life’s lessons later, such as the value
of keeping a sense of perspective, the importance of taking it easy every now and then and being a good sport. Many of the boys, who are now older gentlemen, are like my brothers even after fifty years! Finally, it was the lack of ladies’ toilets on campus that made me understand the difficulty faced by many women in India due to the insufficiency or sheer absence of toilets. Eventually, this would lead me to build more than 13,000 toilets in Karnataka alone!

  Meanwhile, my mother chose an auspicious day for me to pay the tuition fee. It was a Thursday and happened to be the end of the month. My mother nagged me to pay the fee of Rs 400 that day although my father only had Rs 300 left. He told her, ‘Wait for a few days. I will get my salary and then Sudha can pay her fees.’

  My mother refused to budge. ‘Our daughter is going to college. It is a big deal. We must pay the fees today—it will be good for her studies.’

  While they were still going back and forth, my father’s assistant, Dr S.S. Hiremath, came along with his father-in-law, Patil, who was the headman of the Baad village near Shiggaon, the town where I was born. Patil curiously asked what was going on and my father explained the situation to him. He then took out his wallet and gave my father a hundred rupees. He said, ‘Doctor Sahib, please accept this money. I want to gift it to this girl who is doing something path-breaking. I have seen parents take loans and sell their houses or farms to pay their sons’ fees so that they can become engineers. In fact, sometimes, they don’t even know whether their child will study properly or not. Look at your daughter. She desperately wants to do this and I think she is right.’

  ‘No, Mr Patil,’ my father refused. ‘I can’t take such an expensive gift. I will accept this as a loan and return it to you next month after I receive my salary.’

  Patil continued as though he hadn’t heard my father, ‘The most important thing is for your daughter to do her best and complete her course and become a model for other girls.’ Then he turned to me and said, ‘Sudha, promise me that you will always be ethical, impartial and hard-working and that you will bring a good name to your family and society.’

 
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