I met Kanchan towards the end of last year. This was for a project on addressing multisectoral dimensions for preventing child marriages in a state in India. The work also included supporting married adolescent girls and young women in accessing services as well as reconnecting with education and vocational opportunities. Kanchan was one of the participants in a case study documentation initiative. A mother of three daughters at possibly 21 years of age, Kanchan was a remarkable young woman.
Her life had been an uncertain patchwork of agonies and fears and joys and loves. More than acute poverty, her childhood was coloured by an overwhelming sense of fear, of lack of confidence. “We never lived in peace,” she said. She later realised that this was one of the key factors that drove her to a ‘love marriage’ with a man who gave her a sense of security. Even though he was poorer than her. Even though her family objected. To the adolescent Kanchan, married life seemed exciting. It would also be a respite from her then responsibilities which included caring for two younger cousins. She had done that since their mother had passed away. In many ways, she had become a mother while she was still a child. Marriage would also mean discontinuation of education. She had mixed feelings about that. She liked learning. But she rarely asked any questions. Having strict teachers who were also not averse to corporal punishment didn’t help either!
Anyways, she stepped into a new life, a new world. This new life had its highs and lows as well. Three daughters were born in quick succession. She had also not brought any dowry. While she was always sure of her husband’s affections, his support was less consistent. It wasn’t easy. Then, she heard about a centre where girls who had dropped out of school were being taught. She wrote a letter, addressed to the centre facilitator, with a request that she be allowed to join. She was promptly asked to enroll. Kanchan waited a few days and then chose an auspicious day to join. She would get up at 4 am to complete household tasks and then attend the classes. Her in laws and mother took care of the children during those hours. It was not a very stable arrangement. But Kanchan was determined to figure out ways for doing this.
Within a few months, Kanchan had grown to be one of the star pupils at the centre. She had gotten over her fear of teachers. She had also discovered a love for poetry. But she felt that her biggest achievement was gaining in confidence – that she could now speak before any one. Kanchan wanted to become a teacher in some form, any form. She wanted to demonstrate to children from difficult circumstances that education could be fun and engaging and that it could give you skills and tools for the rest of their lives.
Kanchan’s story was part of a collection of such narratives written in English. The staff read out the narratives to the participants including Kanchan in their languages. I was later told that she cried when her story was read out to her. She said that this was exactly what she had shared. This was her life. This moved me. It was, undoubtedly, one of the best things that anyone can tell a writer. That they have captured the essence of the person, that the words feel true and carry their hopes and fears, sorrows and joys.
I heard about her reaction when the covid lockdown was in its initial days. We were all struggling to understand what was unfolding around us. Hearing her response anchored me. It reaffirmed that, even when so much is uncertain, I need to do what I do. More importantly, Kanchan’s irrepressible spirit and yearning for learning and to improve herself – those are things that make us human, help us navigate what life throws us at. Of course, the struggles now have multiplied. It is about survival for many. It is also about holding those in positions of power accountable for actions for survival and well being of all. It is also about all of us doing our bit. But I also know that it is the extraordinary courage of ordinary people that will see us through this.