Tannu is her daughter from her previous marriage. When Tannu was slightly less than a year old, her father died, in a drunken brawl. Left to pick up the pieces, Tannu’s mother married another man, an older man, who refused to let Tannu be a part of his household. Tannu was sent off to her grandparents’ house where she grew up, and like her mother, Tannu too went from house to house, watching her mother as she cleaned and cooked, each chore earning her a few hundreds. Sometimes Tannu was taught to lend a hand, sometimes she was told to just sit and watch- sometimes she was given a banana, or some leftover breakfast to eat, by the considerate employer.
Now Tannu was seventeen, and her grandparents could barely take care of themselves, let alone her; her mother’s second husband still refused to keep her in the house. Whenever Tannu stayed over with her mother, her husband would stare at her nastily; her mother was not stupid. She never left Tannu alone with her husband; if something untoward were to happen, neither of them would be in a position to hurl any accusations or find themselves any supporters. It was better to be safe than sorry, and so it was decided that Tannu be married, and married soon, for the question of her future loomed large over their heads. As soon as she would turn eighteen, she would be legal to be married off, and a long-term problem would have been resolved.
For in most cases, at least in the country, marriage is the only recourse available to girls. As soon as they are born, an hourglass drills to their head, dictating a time when they could finally be married and ‘settled’ in life. Perhaps we should start by asking what exactly it is meant by being ‘settled’, for all of us hear it, and all of us know it, but we hardly define it. Settled- having a source of income with which to run one’s house, having a spouse to take care of your needs, and being in the condition to pursue and begin a family, the heart of our society. But for the moment, we must narrow it down and go back to Tannu.
Marriage then, was the only recourse available to Tannu- parents cannot live forever and take care of you. Tannu went to school but like most government schools in the area, she was passed on to the next class without actually having learnt much. She did not bother much with studying for the girls she hung out with didn’t, and her grandparents at home never put any pressure on her, for they didn’t think anything great could come out of going to school. School is for the rich folk, they would say, and Tannu would parrot it, justifying her neglect of books- plus, she was moving on from one class to the next, she must have been doing something right. So Tannu never learnt much at school, which she often skipped because she accompanied her mother on her work, which was mostly when her mother could meet her.
Tannu could cook a little and clean some, but those were meagre earnings- that alone could never run a house. Tannu was growing too, she was already past seventeen, and the neighborhood boys (uncouth as they were) had got into the habit of wolf-whistling and cat-calling whenever she passed by, so none of her family felt safe to let her go out alone very much, especially after dark. And on top of that, Tannu wasn’t the brightest girl they had seen- she did not have wits about herself, she generally was obedient, and believed most of what was told to her. No, it wasn’t very long that a girl like that could survive in the cruel world out there. The obvious solution was to find her a man looking for a young wife (and there were many, many like those) and sort her future out.
The husband, they said, the answer was in the husband. But what if, you’d ask, what if the husband was not all they had hoped for? What if the husband was…boring? What if the husband was slow and stupid, or worse cruel? What if he drank all night and snored through the day? What if he wasn’t what Tannu hoped for? What if all was well, but they simply didn’t get along? What if he was fine for the moment, but became all these things later?
But that way, the propagators of the marriage would say, that way nothing can be certain. That way no marriage can work, but marriages work, and have been working, for thousands of years because we cannot think of all this- we must believe in the institution and the subsequent relationship would work out on its own. And that is how the institution of marriage has been justified over the years.
This is when you know that the government, and the entire society at large, has failed you, that it has robbed you of a future of your own becoming. When the only way to sort out a girl’s future is to get her married off, where she must stick it out any which way, then the society must know that it has failed, and the government must know that it has failed.
For those parents, the girl could not be trusted to make it on her own in the world, for girls were hardly ever on their own in a culture like ours- they either had a parental umbrella or a husband supporting them, so that their family knows, and the society knows, that they are fine, that they will survive.
But imagine something else here- imagine there were economical and institutional supports that reached out to people, that reached out to girls like her living in families like hers and gave her another way out. Institutional and economical supports that said okay if you aren’t properly educated, and okay if you have no skill to add to the economy yet, and they said okay we will train you for it and give you a chance to study alongside. The supports which would train them to get basic jobs for the time being, jobs that would earn them decent money and buy them time. Jobs that can be taught with a little common sense and motivation, that don’t need History and Science and Economics to be studied in school.
These jobs would ensure and convince them that they’d do better to earn for themselves, to live on their own, and maybe even, support their own parents- would their parents still be as eager to get them married off at seventeen? For what are her options at the present moment- that she may be employed as maid in someone’s house, to clean and cook food and wash, where she earns a meagre income and invites unsolicited advances- in short, a disaster waiting to be unfurled?
But imagine if she was given a chance- a chance to be trained and skilled, to be taught how to do maths and maintain accounts, taught how to talk to other people and negotiate, or to even be employed as a store manage or at a supermarket- imagine if she was given a chance to use public modes of transport that were safe for her, to use at her disposal at any time of the day or night, so she could be assured that she would not be picked up and carried off. Imagine how her life could have changed.
Probably, pretty soon, she would have saved enough, to learn a language, or the computer, and other skills that this capitalist world requires us to learn, and she too, would have slowly started to live in comfort, and taken it off from there. Really, how life could have changed from her, from the hopes of getting a husband who wasn’t abusive, to making a life on her own terms. And then, marriage wouldn’t have been her only recourse.
This isn’t the story of only Tannu- it is the story of millions and millions of girls who go through the same in life. It is also the story of millions and millions of girls who are well-educated, and earn enough, and live well, but are still not considered complete unless graced with a husband and a family, girls whose success buys them a few grace years, but doesn’t completely stop the world from vilifying them as a lonely, old woman. The story of women who choose to remain single, but are perceived by the world, as having been left single, or having been too ‘forward’ and hence being unable to gain a husband. If only marriage wasn’t the only recourse to having led a good life- if only Tannu would have been given a chance beyond marriage, to live and shine, her future would have been as bright and dazzling, as the fireworks they’d burn on her wedding day.