On a recent visit to the heartland of India, I went back to the house of dreams. The landlord was no more and his descendants occupy it. The house is in good condition: the wooden beam ceiling, the rough stone floor and the thick brick walls were as they were. The only sign of modernity inside was a large LCD television in the bedroom. As I walked through the freshly white-washed premises I tried to pick up the vibe, the energy that had fuelled the passion of its residents half a century ago, making them aspire and persevere.
In the summer of 1950, a tonga stopped at this house, newly built in what was then a nondescript neighbourhood. It was a hot and humid night, a tiny detail which the travellers still remember because their luggage got drenched in the rain. Four young boys and their mother had moved there from a village in pursuit of education and a better life. They had rented the premises for fifteen rupees a month, a princely sum, considering that milk was fifty paisa a litre and their father’s salary as a headmaster in the village school was just eighty rupees. A monthly contribution by the boys’ elder brother had made this move possible.
As they brought their wet belongings into the house they noticed that the landlord had still not hung the doors. They were further alarmed to find someone sleeping in the backroom. They nudged him awake and he left quickly saying that he was merely looking after an empty house.
The house was chosen for its location. The government high school was a short distance away. The water source, a well, was at the end of the street. A lake further away was used for major water-consuming activities such as washing linen. A street lantern just across the road that was filled with enough oil to last the night served as an additional light source. The house was built like a train, one room leading into another, at the end of which was a kitchen that opened into a small courtyard. The well-ventilated front room was the study. The rest of the house filled with smoke when food was cooked but this wasn’t a matter of concern. A bed sheet hung on the doorway sufficed till the doors were finally installed. The house remained their humble abode until the boys moved away for higher education. The youngest stayed the longest, for two decades, till he completed his doctorate and started teaching in the university. By then running water and electricity had arrived, making the well and the lamp post redundant.
But this story is not about the four brothers who went on to become, respectively,a district collector, a veterinarian, a paediatrician and a professor. It is about the five sisters who lived with their grandmother on the floor above them. Incidentally, the veterinarian fathered me and I grew up listening to the inspiring tale of the gritty girls in free India.
Their father, a landlord, lived in a nearby village and looked after the farmland. He had no formal education but had the wisdom to educate his daughters and the resolve to face the inconvenience it entailed. This, at a time when less than 5 per cent of all girls attended high school. Hardworking and intelligent, the girls grew up to become well-placed professionals.
The elder three chose what were then unconventional fields such as mechanical and electrical engineering, took their doctorates from Indian Institutes of Technology and retired as professors and deans. They achieved this feat despite many social and cultural barriers, often being the only girl in the class. They continued to use their maiden names and collectively brought more honour to the family then their two, less illustrious brothers. Students where the three sisters taught often joked that the name of the institute stood for Madame Agnihotri, not Maulana Azad! (The sisters retired as professors from the Maulana Azad National Institute of Technology, Bhopal, where they used their maiden name, Agnihotri.)
These two seemingly similar tales of urban migration have vast differences. He having been a headmaster himself, it is easy to understand my grandfather’s predilection for education, but what drove the father of the girls remains a mystery. Never having attended school, perhaps, he felt its necessity more acutely. In any case it is commendable that unlike the average son-crazy Indian he saw potential in his daughters. This story comes as an inspiration at a time when the sex ratio and female literacy rate refuses to show significant improvement in many parts of the country despite the chants of Beti bachao, beti padhao. The perception that educating girls is a waste of resources as they would leave for their marital homes is the main reason for this disparity.
We need to change this mindset of the people. For this we have to move beyond the handful of Laxmi Bais, Indira Gandhis and Kalpana Chawlas and honour the lesser-known women achievers amongst us. There are millions of role models and the common person will easily connect with them.
While leaving the home where I took my first footsteps, I wondered whether it was as inanimate as it seemed. Nine professionals strived for excellence living here, sheltered from the elements, drinking from the well. It is hard to dismiss its role in the scheme of things, for it may have been very basic but it ably housed dreams.