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The why-why girl!

March 18, 2012

Recently, I read a children’s picture book, ‘The Why-Why Girl’ by Mahasweta Devi (published by Tulika Books).

The story touched my heart in many ways. First, Moyna the little why-why girl in the story inspired me a lot. It is a true story based a young tribal girl, Moyna, who Mahasweta Devi met while working with the tribals in her village. She constantly asks ‘Why’ – “Why can’t I go to school while boys can? Why does the timing of my school have to be such that I can’t attend it? Why is it at a time I am tending goats? Why can’t the landlord’s boy tend the goats? Why do I have to walk so far to the river to fetch water?” And the list of questions just goes on! Second, the story provoked a chain of thoughts in my mind. Certain questions I have always wanted to ask crept into my mind slowly but steadily.

The first question that crawled into my head was, ‘Why is a ladki called paraya dhan?’ I vividly remember an incident where a number of well-educated ladies visited my house to chat with my mother. They sat around a round wooden table that had samosas and chai on it. During the conversation, one of the ladies told my mother in her thoughtful voice while sipping chai, “Don’t you feel bad that you have no sons. Your daughters are lovely but you know one day they will have to go away and you will be left all alone. After all, ladkiyan parya dhan hoti hain!” Then, a few others concurred by nodding. My mother was gracious in her response. She always surprises me with her calm demeanor during such highly ‘intellectual’ conversations. She said, “I love my daughters. Don’t you think that in today’s world, there is no difference between sons and daughters?” While this conversation was going on, I stared in resentment at the samosa in the thoughtful aunty’s hand and whispered to myself, “I wish I could snatch that samosa away right now.” (This was 10 years back!) Unsolicited, unwelcome, ‘insightful’ comments by others always come in all forms and varieties. One has to ignore them, I convinced myself.  Fortunately, my parents never thought of me or treated me like ‘paraya dhan’! And I am glad that many of my friends’ parents don’t think like that either.

Yet another day, another unsolicited unwelcome insightful comment came my mother’s way, “You know, no matter what you say, having a boy is better. I can take dowry for my son. After all, I have spent so much on his education. Don’t you think that is an advantage? How much dowry have you kept aside for your daughter?” My mother became nervous at these questions, not because she was thinking about the dowry amount, but because I was standing right next to the aunty who asked these questions, fuming with anger and holding two cups of hot steaming chai! My mother tried to avoid the topic by saying, “Have tea, my daughter makes good tea!” My anger peaked and I clutched the cups of chai harder when the aunty said, “Oh good! That is a useful quality to have when she gets married!” She turned her eyes to me, completely ignoring my angry expression and asked, “So how much dowry have you saved?” I lost patience and asked her, “Aunty, have you heard about the Dowry Protection Act  1961!” She laughed aloud to my surprise and said, “Usse kya hota hai beta? Yeh sab to chalte rehta hai! (How does that matter anyway? All this continues anyways.)” My mother sensed an impending volcano explosion and politely urged the aunty, “Arey aap samosa lijiye na!” (Please have a samosa!)

I remember thinking to myself, “Why is dowry still prevalent, in spite of strict laws?” Having laws is important but the more challenging challenge is to change the way people think, isn’t it?”

Yet another day, one of my close friends who belongs to the other gender asked me, “Why are you so agitated about the concept of ‘paraya dhan’?” I liked his question and asked him another question in return, “How would you feel if you were told that one fine day you have to leave your house because you are married? How would you feel if someone told you that the other family (the family you are married into) was now more important instead of saying that both families are important? How would you feel if you had to live in a completely alien house all of a sudden?” He was generous and calm enough to listen patiently to my questions. His response to my impulsive array of questions was short, crisp, and exactly what I wanted to hear. “Valid point. I would not like it,” he said. I told him, “Alright then, let us have the samosa and hot chai now.” (I probably wouldn’t have given them to him had he said something else!)

Jay keeps asking me one question all the time, “Do there even exist people in this world who think on these lines?” The standard response to my extremely optimistic husband’s question is a smile!

Back to the book I read which provoked this chain of thoughts! I wish and hope that we have more girls like Moyna (the protagonist in the ‘The Why-Why girl’ story) who respect our traditions, spread happiness to people around them, but never forget to question the customs that don’t make sense anymore. And I respect and admire the people from the ‘other’ gender who support Moynas when they ask – Why?

If you are interested in reading more about Moyna, make sure you read the book! Whether you are an adult or a child, you will surely like it.

Have a great weekend!



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  1. Roopa Bhat Chauhan permalink

    Story telling sessions turned you into a “Writer”. Great going. Keep up the good work.

  2. siddharth permalink


  3. Rangoli permalink

    Rant alert.

    Unfortunately the answer to many a “Why?” evoke completely illogical answers: “You are a child.” or “This is the way things have always been.” I think there is a certain “lack of indignation” and passiveness that is ingrained in you in the name of culture and respecting your elders. I hope to never say it to my kids. The greatest respect that a child can offer is try and learn something new from you. And a great sign of caring is when he/she argues with you to try and get you to see things as they are. But often enough the spirit is crushed systematically by saying “you don’t understand how the world works”, “don’t question the elders” etc.

    What bugs me most, is when people say things like “Proud to be an Indian” or “This happens only in India”, I feel that it’s a conscious and deliberate way to delude yourself that everything is ok.

    The other day, I was looking at a statistic in which India’s women rank below Egypt and just above Saudi Arabia in economic opportunity. No offense to these countries, but I thought I was from a country where women were doing better than having to hide their ankles.

    I have never been able to utter “Proud to be an Indian” without qualifiers and caveats. Time to face reality, I say. And the onus is on the educated Indian.

    • 🙂 Rangoli, I agree that parents should foster a caring and comfortable environment so that children can come up and talk/argue with them. And I too get irked when people’s response to valid questions is ” don’t question the elders” and “you don’t understand how the world works” . Questions can be asked in a respectful way and answers can also be given in a respectful way. It was good to read your point of view.

  4. Srija Unnikrishnan permalink

    It is important not to stifle the spirit of questioning (which in turn prods you to think) in young children. But, at the same time, a certain level of maturity is needed to understand and appreciate some answers – the level varies depending on the question. For eg. A very young child cannot understand if you explain why he/she cannot play with chappals, matchboxes etc. It has to be imposed. If only the well-being of the child is in your mind, you’ll intuitively find the right answer/step.
    And old habits/customs die hard. As society progresses, respect and dignity of women improves. Be optimistic! Your generation should make the world see the the potential of Indian women!

  5. Mayank permalink

    As usual, very well written! You have a great ability to engage people in your writing :).

    At the risk of sounding too cynical ( 🙂 ), I would argue that nothing should be accepted in blind faith. I feel that, at the very least, the act of questioning leads to a better understanding of how the world around us works. Perhaps more importantly, questioning wisdom imparted by others allows us to remove biases and prejudices that would otherwise get positively reinforced.

  6. Pravin permalink

    I see that the samosas are a very common factor in all of the above instances 🙂 and be honest you would feel like doing the exact same thing with the hot chai and samosa that you thought of doing 10 years back

    On a more serious note I do agree with your point it is high time for our society to grow up but quite honestly I don’t know of any good solution to the problem. Anyway everyone should have the mentality to ask why and each one of us should be patient enough to answer the why questions. Just my 2 cents.

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