An assignment done in Nov 2011, as a part of development journalism module at Symbiosis Institute of Media and Communications. The story is about the spirit of a Dalit woman; the struggles she underwent to raise and educate her blind daughter.
“I GOT married in 1974. I was eleven years old.” These are the first words from Usha Alhat, female supervisor of the PMC Road Development Department, when asked to narrate the story of her life. The first of three sisters and two brothers, choice was never a luxury she afforded, having been brought up in a Dalit slum in Talegaon district of Pune.
As a child, Usha had a simple dream – to become a teacher. When she protested against getting married, she was beaten into acquiescence. It was a precursor to the kind of life she was to face in the near future. “My husband was five years older to me. We lived in a slum in Khadki. Unemployed, he turned to alcoholism, and then the abuse began.” He was a wife-beater for the bottle. “Mine was not an uncommon case. Women in our strata are believed to be born sufferers.”, says Usha, a Dalit by birth.
Usha began working to support her home at a paltry Rs. 8 a month. With a petty job of a labourer, she only earned more blows when she was unable to provide for her husband’s addiction. A girl of fifteen, with shattered self-respect, agony and suffering, the only place that she could think to go was home, to her parents. But, the thought of losing respect in the community over their daughter’s return made them send her back in disgrace, and her husband’s wrath was profuse and inescapable.
She had her first child as a juvenile herself- all of sixteen years old. In 1982, a bout of brain fever left behind a blind, two-year old daughter for Usha. Another daughter and son later, her resolve only strengthened. “We were living like animals. I asked him to work. He hit me with anything that he could lay his hands on. I made up my mind. My children were going to study and live like humans”. She was certain, that unlike her, being forced to abandon her studies, her children would be educated enough to live non-oppressed, respectable lives.
“My husband didn’t mind my other children going to the school. But, he despised me for sending Suvarna, my elder one, to a blind school, Kothrud Andhashaala. My husband beat me all night for six days incessantly.” What can a blind girl do with an education, he would ask, adding that she ought to stay home till she gets married. “He abused me when I retaliated that she would stand on her own feet,” says Usha.
Four years after their son was born, her husband died of complications caused by alcohol abuse. But life for Usha and her children received a new lease.
It was during this phase that she met the President of the Pune Municipal
Corporation, Employees Union, Mukta Manohar. With her guidance, from a labourer carrying stones for road development, she was selected to become the Mahila Mukadam- female supervisor of the PMC Road Development Department.
“She is a story of determination. An abusive husband, financial constraints and obsolete social practices didn’t deter her from doing her best for her life and her children. She reads and educates herself. She also educated her daughter’s visually impaired friend, whose family obligations could not support her education. Till date she encourages women in her neighbourhood about the necessity to empower themselves with education. She has been teaching them hope, “ says Mukta Manohar.
“I now earn a salary of Rs. 21,000,” Usha beams. It enabled her to marry off all three children within a span of two years. This too posed a challenge in the form of caste issues imposed by the society. When her eldest was offered marriage by a boy of the Maratha caste and lesser educational background, Usha was in a dilemma. Belonging to the Boudh jaat, people are unforgiving when it comes to mixing castes. But she stood by her decision to go ahead with the marriage. This would ensure that if the unfortunate need ever arose, their daughters would always have a roof of their own. Usha has also arranged for homes for two of her children, and has another one in the pipeline. Her next venture is to educate her daughter-in-law, a remarkable move for an Indian mother-in-law.
“Our mother is the reason we all have a very different life from the slums that we lived our childhood in. Her workplace awarded her with the Best Employee of the year award. She deserves this and much more. We haven’t been able to reciprocate even half of what she has done for us,” says Sarika, Usha’s second daughter, who is a nurse by profession.
Usha continues to live by the teachings of Savitribai Phule, the first woman teacher in India – The pallu of saree splendid on your forehead has slipped to shoulders, from your shoulders it has been tied around the waist, move ahead with your tightly wrapped pallu and don’t look behind, many vultures lingering in the sky will try and hinder you but don’t be scared. Just keep marching ahead and your footprints will be imprinted on the way to success and liberty.”
Usha Alhat is a figure we may be passing by on the streets every day. Why is her story so important? Because any story that inspires life and instils hope, deserves to be told.