That Funny Thing Called Izzat, or, Surefire Ways to Ruin Young Lives

Single mother.

अविवाहित माँ

Potatoes, potaatoes?

In a world that rules via rhetoric, language remains one of the most powerful means of manipulation.

And in an era as polarised as the one we live and breathe and work and play and fret in today, where you’re as good as your last #, it’s all there is, in a way.

Be it the dusty ravines of Bundelkhand or the brick-lined avenues of Bombay, a single girl who gives birth, will be branded with the tag.

Single mother.

अविवाहित माँ

Potatoes, potaatoes.

Reminiscent of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne who was literally branded ‘A’ for ‘Adulteress’ in puritanical New England, in a story of its time and also tragically (or ironically if you prefer) far ahead of it, it is the nomenclature that is important – because the language tells everyone who she exactly is. A woman of no honour, or lost honour, a woman who has no shame.

And so it is that when Sumaina, a young girl, a minor, abandoned a baby in the fields in Bhauri’s Getapurwa in Chitrakoot, the charcha quickly fired up to include all things izzat. The girl’s honour, the family’s honour, the neighbourhood’s honour, the village’s honour – everyone from the padosi to the panchayat to the local dealers to the well-intentioned NGOs zooming in with their ‘interventions’, to the media, had and expressed opinions on the big taboo that is pre-marital sex, the precarious situation of the girl and her family, the need for restraint, education, the future of the girl, her family, the baby. While the all-pervading sense of shame loomed large over Sumaina. And only Sumaina.

In the first video report on this story, Sumaina spoke to us with hesitation and under apparent duress –her face blurred as is the norm to protect her identity, because the unwritten and yet all-pervasive societal norms dictate that the onus of responsibility for the act lies on her, and only her. No such onus on the other person involved, of course – the boy Vikram, also a minor. Clueless about biology, he told us, straight-off, that if he knew about Sumaina having conceived, he would have advised that she get rid of it. This was not an option that ever struck her, because she had been so busy concealing the fact of her pregnancy from the aas-pados, petrified of what would happen to her if anybody found out, and living in mortal fear of her own family and her brothers, who had failed in their jobs as the custodians of a young girl’s izzat and were no doubt, holding her accountable for that. Sumaina’s brother lashed out at his mother when he found out, blaming her for the entire mess they were all in. A resident shrugged and blamed the girl for it all – “It’s the girl’s mistake,” he said, in a tone that left no room for doubt.

We try and piece together the ‘love story’ – Vikram is Sumaina’s sister’s devar and it’s clear that they both knew each other well. It seems what had transpired was that they were in a relationship, but had not told anyone about it and had never fathomed that there were precautions to be taken in doing what felt like the most natural thing in the world.

Shackled with accusations and expectations, Sumaina claimed that she had been forced by Vikram, because that’s unarguably the only way she could have hoped for forgiveness, redemption and a less harsh judgement. When the time came, she set off alone in the fields to complete the ‘natural’ cycle. Pushing it out into the world and leaving it there, because she simply did not know what else to do. Desperate times, desperate measures.

The baby was ‘rescued’ by a woman who chanced upon him in the fields where she had gone to relieve herself – having been exposed to the elements in a winter possibly less harsh than the societal judgement Sumaina was being subjected to, and then admitted to the hospital where he was declared to be in a stable condition. A family in Bhauri was ready to adopt the child when they discovered it was Sumaina’s. All hell broke loose and the case came up for a public trial, akin to Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter. This is when all talk of izzat and honour took foreground because, as someone rightly said, while nobody really knows what this funny thing called izzat really is, we do know with certainty, where it resides: Inside women’s vaginas.

In less than a week’s time, when we went back for the follow-up story, crucial decisions had already been taken. The village pradhan, master of the proceedings, had sounded off his judgement: A marriage had been announced, only it felt too much like a death knell. Surreal pangs of forced celebration were palpable in the air, the local NGOs and other do-gooders smug about the outcome of the entire brouhaha – the child, after all, had returned to its parents, who would soon be husband and wife. They would obviously know what it means to be mother and father at such terribly young ages, after everything that had happened, quickly forget any residual bittersweet, mixed feelings they might be nursing for each other, their secret bouts of passion in the past, and this new human being they had been handed over to care for. All is well with the world because the three of them now fit neatly into the box we all understand and hold dear: They are now a family. Vikram is also behaving like the quintessential ‘damaad babu’ in Sumaina’s home – another familiar marker of patriarchy we all hold so dear, which tells us all is right with the world.

Sumaina terms it all “a mistake” she has to live with for the rest of her life. As for Vikram, all he had to offer in response to our question, “Do you want to stay with her?”, was a shrug.

But these are unimportant issues. Izzat, after all, is paramount, and finally, izzat has been restored.