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The Charge of the Pink Brigade

  Tucked away in a remote part of Uttar Pradesh, India, is a firebrand of a woman. Her name is Sampat Pal, leader of the Pink Gang (Gulabi Gang). The word gang conjures up images of mobs of unruly thugs out to create chaos. But believe me this gang is a far cry from that. Donned in pink saris, wielding lathis or sticks, these women show up at courts and police stations when justice turns a blind eye to crimes committed by powerful politicians or wealthy landlords.

So who are these powerful women? Usually victims of abuse or violence who had no one to turn to and got justice through the Pink Gang. They in turn joined the gang to help other women. Sampat empowers these women – usually illiterate, tied down by housework and children and financially dependent on their husbands. She teaches them to speak up, seek help from other women and also stresses the importance of education. Learn to ride a bike so you can get to the meetings by yourself  says Sampat. She even encourages them to learn a skill that can help them earn money.

To understand how much she has accomplished, one has to get an idea of the Bundlekhand region. There are no sewers, no running water ( in certain villages), no roads even. The caste system is alive and well and inter-caste marriages are frowned upon. Many cases of honor killings have also been reported. Dowry deaths and abuse of women and girls is rampant. Where are the police you ask? The police pay the politicians to get them a job. The politicians are mostly criminals with several pending cases and criminal charges against them. The police end up being sidekicks to these lawless netas (leaders). The poor don’t stand a chance here where money can make the scales of justice sway its way.

From the gutters of Bundlekhand rose a lone Dalit woman. She simply decided to take a stand. To not be afraid anymore. To fight instead of cower in fright. Her grassroots movement has given a voice to the voiceless, faceless victims of Goonda Raj (thugs ruling over the state of Uttar Pradesh). Her fearless spirit wreaks terror in the hearts of anyone on the wrong side of the law.

Sampat’s life was not easy to start with. She was married off at the age of 12 and was a mother by the age of 15. The little she knows to read and write (she didn’t go to school) she learnt by watching the teachers and with some help from local boys. She taught herself how to sew, bought a machine ( by selling grain that the family stored!) and made money by stitching garments. She also knew how to ride a bicycle. One day she gathered a group of women from her village and accosted a neighbor who was battering his wife every day. After they threatened him, he stopped beating his wife. This marked the beginning of her activism.

Sampat believes that in unity there is strength and women should help other women. She also felt that wearing the same color sari gave them an identity and that is how they came to be known as the Pink Gang. She has an office and people show up asking for her help when the corrupt police turn their cheek. She then organizes rallies and sit-outs, outside the police stations and the court houses. She even gets the media to inform the public about the case. Invariably she wins and justice is served. Now the Pink Gang operates in other towns as well and she has women (trained by her) who deal with simple cases on their own. As of today they have twenty thousand members.

In the past four decades the number of reported rapes has gone up by 792 percent. Sadly, the conviction rates are dropping. Domestic violence on the other hand has risen by 30 percent. We can no longer wring our hands in despair and say – what can we do? If someone with Sampat’s background can make such an impact, we have no excuse. We have to form our own gangs and demand justice. This can’t go on. We have to deal with it. We can’t allow our daughters to deal with it in the future.

I encourage you to read the book “Pink Sari Revolution” by Amana Fontanella-Khan and I would also like to thank my friend V for thrusting the book into my hands at the library. After reading this book, I’m filled with hope. I know we will leave a safer and much more empowered India to our daughters and sons.

 

 


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While You Were Sleeping…

My grandmother was a busy woman. She used to work at her gas agency from 8.30 in the morning to 1.00 in the afternoon. Then she’d come home for lunch, pop a handful of pills (she had heart disease and high blood pressure) and settle down for a nap. She napped every day from 1.30 to 3.00. She was a light sleeper and when one of the million clocks in her room chimed she’d jump out of bed and get dressed for work.

When I was growing up in my grandma’s house, I would get back from school after my grandma had left for work at 3.30 in the evening. But come weekends, my grandma would insist that I go lie down next to her and take a nap. She wouldn’t take no for an answer so I’d end up in bed with her, a big blanket over me. I’d lie absolutely still until I heard soft snores emanating from my grandma’s side of the bed. I’d wait a couple more minutes and then gingerly slip out of the bed and head to the door. Now this was the tricky part. Like I said, my grandma was a light sleeper and the smallest noise would rouse her. Ever so gently I would push down the handle of the door and slip outside. As I closed the door and released the handle as slowly as I could the metal would touch the wood and my grandma’s eyes would fly open. She would give me a look of disdain as I turned away and snuck outside to play.

I would cut up leaves of various hues in the garden and grind some bricks to make chili powder. Then I’d arrange the bricks to make a stove and cook my leaves in tiny steel pots and pans which my grandma got for me. When I was older my grandma had young maids and they were my playmates. So when my grandma and the older maids were taking a nap we’d play all sorts of games and I would teach them how to write their names in English.

It didn’t matter if you were a kid or a grandma or a middle-aged person, anyone spending a day or more with my grandma would be coaxed to take a nap. If she was very close to the person, she’d fetch them a pillow and blanket and ask them to sleep right next to her. In 2009, just days before she passed away I lay beside her with my daughter. I held her soft hands and fell asleep out of sheer exhaustion. I woke up hearing the nurse talk on the phone – her pulse is going down – she was saying. Two days later my grandma was gone.

I’m not much of a napper but when I had my first baby I started taking naps in the afternoon. My daughter was quite a good sleeper and she woke up just once during the night. It was when my son came along that sleep deprivation took on a whole new meaning! His schedule was erratic. He woke up every 2 hours at night to feed or be comforted back to sleep. I couldn’t nap in the afternoon because the two of them wouldn’t nap at the same time. I would be dying to take a nap but I couldn’t and my long day would end only at 11.00 p.m. Just as I dozed off, baby number 2 would wake up screaming!

I would wander around like a zombie and get irritated if someone buttered the toast too loudly! I was on edge and would start yelling at the slightest provocation. By the time my son was one I was ready to wean him and let him cry himself to sleep! My husband jumped in to my rescue and he tried feeding my son from a bottle. My son however never took to the bottle or formula for some reason and after 3 days he stopped waking up at midnight.

I didn’t need naps anymore but I did need some downtime. So I got the kids to nap at the same time. It was tricky because my son would want to roll off the bed and go play. I had to put him in the middle and hug him ever so tightly so he wouldn’t wriggle away. My daughter was really getting to the age where she didn’t need naps but she used to humor me (angel that she is! ) Once they feel asleep they’d only wake up after 2 hours.  Those 2 hours were when I watched the Oprah show or read without the book being yanked off or spoke to friends on the phone without being interrupted. I developed great respect for the concept of napping.

And soon after that I was terrified of napping while my kids were awake. Here is what happened. We had gone on a trip to the West Coast and when we got back home I was so exhausted that I fell asleep on the couch while my kids were playing around. My son decided to try shoving a straw up my nostril and I woke up startled. As they got older the fear dissipated and sometimes I would nap in the afternoons and let them play. They would assume it was ‘their time’ (unsupervised time). So they’d run out to the patio with buckets of water and start washing their bikes or doing some messy craft that requires adult supervision.

I rarely nap these days and on weekends when my husband sometimes takes a nap, the kids and I play board games. When we go back home to India to visit our parents we end up napping because of the jet lag. Also all the travelling and running around visiting friends and family gets us exhausted. Probably when we are old and gray (second childhood!) we’ll go back to napping the way kids did when they were babies!