Born in the wrong country and city

Today, Ralf’s comment in my previous post where he says ‘it seems as though I’m living in the wrong country and city’ made me very thoughtful. And nostalgic. And also introspective, you could say. Let me tell you a story, Ralf, on the topic of the wrong city in the wrong country. Perhaps, it will give you a different perspective 🙂 Because it certainly made me think, as your comments and conversations always do, you know 🙂

Forty years ago – it feels a bit funny to say that, but I’ve been wanting to say that for a long time now – Anyway, 40 years ago, a girl child was born in Calcutta. Also known as "The Black Hole", as in the black hole of Calcutta. The nickname for the city comes from a notorious incident during what we call The first war of Independence and what the British call The Sepoy Mutiny. It’s all a matter of which side you are on. And from this UK site, comes the explanation of the meaning of this nickname, used quite often, until recent more politically correct times,

A jocular simile used of a place that is small, dark, cramped, uncomfortable or dismal.

So, that was the city she was born in. Famous around the world as an example of abject poverty, overpopulation, floods, bad infrastructure, frequent labour struggles and a rarity in a democratic nation, a communist state government. There was a good side to this city but we will come to that later. In the sixties, in India, disease was rampant and child mortality high. It still is, to a degree. But the advent of infant vaccination in 1978, and through the efforts of the WHO and others, smallpox was eradicated, cholera and typhoid epidemics less common and polio almost gone. Mind you, she was lucky. She was born in an educated family of means, so received her small pox innoculation as soon as it was available – there is a scar from the primitive method used in those days by the WHO doctors – an eyedropper was used to put a few drops of the vaccine into a cut made by a knife in the skin. Anyway, she survived. The well off usually do, in any third world country, though there are some diseases that care for no one. At seven she had two bouts of typhoid and there was some concern. Water and sanitation systems were not the best in those days, but much has improved in the decades since. So, it was the wrong city, perhaps?

Let’s take the country now, the country is India. For a girl child in that country, unless she was lucky enough to be born in a family that loved children, regardless of gender, the odds of survival are ambiguous at best. The odds of education, spotty, again, it totally depends on the family and it’s value system. Sheer luck would have it, her father believed in educating his daughters. And he did. Even when he was advised by many "Why waste money on educating a girl, she’s only going to get married and have babies anyway? Save the money for her dowry" for whatever reason, he stood firm in his beliefs and went ahead and sent her to best schools that he could find. He helped her with her homework and taught her what negative numbers were, what gravity was and how to calculate a parabolic curve. When the math got beyond him, he brought in a tutor for her.

When she finished her bachelor’s degree, the traditional moment when good fathers find a suitable boy for their daughters and ‘settle’ them in their preordained role in life – a daughter in indian culture is considered ‘paraya daan’ or ‘borrowed goods’, as her rightful place is in her husband’s family – he asked her if he should begin to search for a boy. He asked her! She said no, they were sitting outside the airline office, late in the evening, he had taken her there to help her get to Ahmedabad, a city far away, in time for her entrance examination for a graduate program in design. She had been one of the 200 selected, you see, and as she was to discover later, the only woman. He said, listen, do you really want to do this? Are you sure? For if you are, I will do my utmost to make sure you get there to take this examination. But if you’re just fooling around or unsure, you don’t have to do this. We can turn around and go home right now. You see, there were no tickets to be had. And to get her there, he would have to ask for favours. She went. She did not marry at 23.

Then she came back home at 24, after taking the terrible decision to not complete the program that she had struggled to gain admittance to, as they only take 10 people in any given year. Do you know how many people there are in the wrong country for every seat available? She wanted to work, outside of the home. In his day, her grandfather had categorically stated that women of this family do not work outside of the home. It was simply not done. But her father did not believe so, and never said a word when she applied for jobs and moved far away from his home in Delhi to go to work. To live alone in Chennai, in those days, she had to take a male friend to meet the landlord to pretend that they were a couple. You see, in this country, single woman are not considered suitable tenants. For that matter, if a woman wished to donate blood, she needed to get permission from her father or husband first. Her blood, coursing through her veins.

That is the story I wanted to tell you, Ralf, of what living in the wrong city in the wrong country can mean to someone else. Each of us perceives things, very naturally, from our own perspective. You, to me, grew up on the right side of the hemisphere, in the right numbered world, in the correct gender, of the right nationality. We, each of us, make the best of what we are given. And what we are given, a gift to us all, regardless of right or wrong city or country, is life. This one life. To make of it what we can.

Links later

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2 Responses to Born in the wrong country and city

  1. Ralf Beuker says:

    Wow, Niti, this is a posting which actually touched me in many ways. Please expect my detailed response within the next couple of days …
    Initially my comment was just the German version (currently our bottle over here is mostly half empty 😉 of actually reinforcing your very smart decision to move to SF. Don’t forget you’re still my poster-girl 😉

  2. Niti Bhan says:

    That is very sad, that the germans feel so pessimistic and gloomy today, as though their bottle is mostly half empty. How very depressing an outlook. I’ve always believed there is a bright side to every thing and every crisis is but an opportunity.
    Best wishes

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