This is a tiny nugget of a memory from my afternoons with Kani, who was our housekeeper for a while after my grandmother passed on, when we were taking care of my grandfather. Kani was always enthusiastic about everything. If the both of us wound up wearing blue on the same day, it was cause for celebration. If there were strains of music playing from a neighbour’s flat, it was reason to clap with glee. If there was a book lying about, it was encouragement for Kani to read. And that became a beautiful space for the two of us to bond. Kani lived in a village until she turned eighteen, after which she was married off and moved to the city I live in. In the time that she lived in her native village, she wanted to study, and her mother moved heaven and earth to make it possible. The village school only offered classes until the sixth standard, and Kani’s mother made sure that she went there, every day. But after that threshold, she had to drop out: not because her parents refused, but simply because there wasn’t a school within an accessible distance.
After marriage, Kani began to support her household by taking on work as a housekeeper - and blessed my family and me by choosing our house. She would linger to read the text on the posters I had stuck on my wall. It took her a while to frame the words, having learned only the alphabet in English, and by the end of three weeks, she triumphantly tried on a new word for size: “universal,” which she had learned from a poster on the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”
My mother encouraged me to light a candle, and that day, with Kani’s enthusiastic permission, I began spending time with her to help her read, and pronounce words in English. My mother would often tell Kani that she wasn’t in any way to be devalued because she didn’t know how to read or write in English - and would emphasize that English was, after all, just another language. But Kani had an answer, one that made us see our privilege and recognize it - and strive to check it. “You say that, amma, because you have the knowledge. But for people like me, if I went to work at a company as a receptionist, for example, my value would be frugal because I don’t know English.”
Each day we worked on words and sentences together, Kani became a force to reckon with. And soon, her dreams began to take shape: she wanted to become a typist, one day, a computer engineer the next, a journalist, one day, and finally, settled on wanting to become a salesperson at a store that she liked most. Kani’s enthusiasm wasn’t contained, and why should it, anyway, right? So one day, after many weeks of keeping her English training under wraps, she went home and belted out a bunch of sentences to her husband, with great confidence.
She would tell us later that she had stood before him, smiling, waiting for his appreciation. She would tell us, how excited she was that the words had rolled off her tongue with as much enthusiasm as she had formed them with, in the first place. She would tell us, how she never expected what came next.
He slapped her.
The morning that followed, her husband marched down to our house and began to give my mother and me an earful for corrupting his wife, for teaching her a tongue that she had no business learning, and for making her, “modern.” My mother listened calmly. I hadn’t had the mastery over my temper that I am striving towards today, back then, so I glared at him furiously, trying to interject, only to be stopped by my mother.
When he was done, my mother calmly asked him, “Why do you feel so powerless when your wife is good at something?”
He looked at her, speechless. After a few seconds passed, he shook his head and said, “She is becoming modern. I don’t like it.”
“How is English modern? Did you know, it has been spoken in the world since before your great grandfather’s grandfather’s time?”
“It’s not our culture.”
“Maybe. But it is the language she wants to speak, and it is not hurting anyone. It is not your culture to hit her. Nothing in the religion or culture you follow says you are allowed to hit your wife, or even yell at her. And yet, here you are, doing just that. What she does is not harming anyone. What you do, has left her in so much pain today, which will continue for many days to come, in her mind. Now tell me. Who is doing wrong?”
He nodded. Realization had dawned. He walked away, and stopped being an impediment to Kani’s journey of learning to read and write.
That day made me realize that teaching a woman the skills she needs to be empowered is not enough. It is equally, if not more, important to engage with the ecosystem around her - particularly the men - who feel disempowered at the mere thought of the empowerment of a woman. This is why several women in India who earn from domestic labour aren’t able to enjoy the joy of social upward mobility - because their alcoholic husbands snatch their wages to be able to fuel their addictions. If we don’t work with the surrounding ethos and suitably ensure that women have an enabling environment for their economic empowerment, we’re only addressing a very small part of the problem, and change is likely to be delayed that much more.