SACRIFICE of a good name
by: Kay Tiddy
For a woman of Neeta’s circumstance–on the breadline and minimally educated, yet young and beautiful–the sex trade posed as a faux fix. But Neeta had come from a good family and was aware her name may have been her last asset in a still stratified society, and she dared not sully it.
A Kolkata sun, softening at the close of a day, spills over the cascading cityscape and gently washes the terrace outside Neeta’s rooftop home with the last of its warmth. Laughter of playing children carries up from the park below, mixing with the far-off humdrum of traffic and the casual yawp of crows that swoop and dive from a lone guardian tree. Neeta sits cross-legged on the terrace, expertly folding her hands around various vegetables as she dices and cuts. “My father taught me to cook,” she recalls, over the grate of a blade. Together the two of them would peruse newspapers for recipes to attempt, and her father would guide Neeta in making them.
With evenness and comfort, Neeta continues at her work–a woman seemingly content and self-assured. One by one, Neeta’s neighbours and friends wander up and dot themselves around her home. Her landlord arrives too, soon followed by his wife. Both are keen to see the new stove and electric light they have had installed for Neeta today in action. Two teenage girls–Neeta’s daughters–tumble up the stairs in a flurry of laughter and eagerness. Their schoolbags are laden heavy with books, and bright uniforms compete with their smiles. The girls change quickly and ready a sweet chai to share with their guests, before joining their mother in meal preparations. Neeta surveys the growing gathering and clears her throat. About to embark on a story society would shame her for, Neeta makes it clear she has nothing to hide from her community. “Everything I would say I can say in front of them,” she plainly asserts–and returns to memories of her childhood.
The oldest of seven children, Neeta was heavily involved in raising her younger siblings. Neeta’s father was a tender and loving man, and the two shared a deep friendship. Conversely, the relationship with her mother was strained, and Neeta always felt as though her mother didn’t like her. At only 14, on the cusp of womanhood, Neeta was spotted by an older male guest at a wedding ceremony she was attending with her family. When the man made a request for Neeta’s hand in marriage, Neeta’s mother strong-armed the family into agreeing to the arrangement, despite resistance from Neeta’s father and tearful requests by Neeta to remain in school. But her mother was uncompromising. The role of wife, rather than student, was most fitting for Neeta, in her mother’s eyes.
“I want them to be independent. To get an education. To be comfortable in their own space and then, if they choose to, they can marry.”
A bewildered child bride with her educational aspirations all but snuffed, Neeta was flung headlong into marriage. She had no instruction on what to expect or how to be a wife. The couple moved, and before Neeta was able to learn if she could love her new husband, beatings began at his hand. After a short time, Neeta became pregnant, and at 16 gave birth to a son. She had a daughter next, and two years later, another. As Neeta fretted about how to raise and feed their children, her husband casually came and went from the home–philandering with a string of other women as he pleased–and failed continually to contribute to the running of the household. Eventually he deserted Neeta, leaving her to care for their small children, the youngest of whom was only one year old. Adding to the strain, Neeta’s own mother also took flight, and Neeta’s father died from the shock. Family resources ran thin, and Neeta found herself the head of a household, with infant children and no income in a bustling and brutal city.
Neeta was desperate but hopeful. She wanted to find a way not only to put food in the bellies of her children but to fund them through the schooling she had been deprived of herself. For a woman of her circumstance–on the breadline and minimally educated, yet young and beautiful–the sex trade posed as a faux fix. However, Neeta had come from a good family and was aware her name may have been her last asset in a still-stratified society, and she dared not sully it.
Neeta borrowed from friends and family as long as she could, but their benevolence had a limit. As she searched for solutions, Neeta learned of a factory nearby where women who were seeking to exit the sex trade were employed in making bags. She squared her shoulders and made her way to Freeset where she met with Priya, one of the business’ co-founders, to discuss the possibilities of work. As the interview drew to a close, and perhaps sensing the full extent of Neeta’s situation, Priya leaned forward and spoke to Neeta in a deliberate tone. “This job is only for women who work in the trade,” she said, knowing the gravity of her words.
That night Neeta lay awake, pondering what Priya had said. To say she was a woman from the trade would have searing social ramifications and demanded of Neeta her only wealth. Neeta weighed the realities: with limited resources, mothering two small daughters–girls whom she hoped would grow to become the kind of independent, educated young woman she was prevented of becoming, against the trading of her name for a title and a wage which could assure their futures. She wrestled through the night and by daybreak settled on her course. “As a way out of this life, why not?” she thought. Neeta now looks up from under dark brows and, knowing the full weight of her decision, adds, “I lied and took a bad name.”
With a steady income in place from her wage at Freeset, Neeta’s girls began school and home life stabilized. Neeta was able to move into a home she and her girls could call their own. Seeing that his wife had secured a strong footing for herself, Neeta’s estranged husband has returned after 12 years of straying. He continues to come and go from Neeta’s home, unashamedly leaching from her hard-earned provisions. Though Neeta will not extend trust to her husband, she tolerates his presence for the sake of her daughters and the societal advantages it affords them to have a father in their home. She refuses to compromise on her daughters’ educations however, and continues to safeguard them from the pressure to marry. “I don’t want my girls to make the same mistake as I did,” Neeta shares. “I want them to be independent. To get an education. To be comfortable in their own space and then, if they choose to, they can marry.”
“I am proud that I can take responsibility for running a family which is a responsibility a man should be bearing,”
Neeta is now crouched over a bowl of flour which she kneads into a yellow dough. Her daughters sit across the room poring over their homework in the company of a family of friends. Neeta looks over at them as she works, contemplating. Her eyes are warm and full of pride, but her lips are pressed together with hint of a pained expression. “My life is sacrifice,” Neeta concedes as she turns back to her task. She sprinkles flour on a board and grasps a ball of dough, which she flattens against the wooden surface with the palm of her hand. “I am proud that I can take responsibility for running a family which is a responsibility a man should be bearing,” Neeta continues, driving a pin over the dough with strong arms. Obediently, the dough spreads out over the board in a thin circle. But Neeta admits there are times when her situation has been so desperate she has contemplated taking her life. For love of her children, however, she has continued her fight. “I always stand like a shield in front of all of the problems, facing them head on rather than breaking, in response to the pressure,” Neeta says, almost coaching herself. She lays a flattened disc aside and grabs another ball of dough, repeating the process.
Neeta has paid this month’s rent, but she’s uncertain what the coming months will hold. Behind her, a colourful Disney-like poster is taped to the wall picturing an idyllic village scene and the English words, “A negative mind will never give you a positive.” Neeta stands, her work complete, and straightens her Sari. Her girls come and wrap their arms around her, and giggling, each kisses one of her cheeks. Neeta’s mouth tips up in a proud smile. She says the strength for her decisions comes from the fact she doesn’t want her girls to end up like her. She doesn’t seem to realize, held in their folding embrace and admiring gaze, there is only one woman whom her daughters aspire to become.
She doesn’t seem to realize, held in their folding embrace and admiring gaze, there is only one woman to whom her daughters aspire to become.