Ria, The "small town" Pioneer

"Hi Sohini"

"Hi Ria. How are you feeling now?"

"I am okay. Recovering."

"Are you sure you want to do this? Are you feeling strong enough to talk?"

"My voice is all I have now to keep my purpose alive. Yeah I am good. Let's do this." she lightly chuckles as I get ready with my note pad.

Ria takes a deep long breath and launches straight into her story.

"I wish to begin with a quote that sums up my life perfectly you know..."

"Sure. Share with me please" I invite her.

After a few seconds pause, she recites,

"One more Unfortunate,

Weary of breath,

Rashly importunate,

Gone to her death!"

There was a sense of hopelessness in her tone when she started by communicating the pain which she almost deemed as her fate it seemed. She spoke of death with a finalty which made me wonder if indeed she felt like she had come to the point of giving up. What could be her story? I wondered. She was clearly a well read woman with the depth of finding communion with shared narratives even while aarticulating her own pain. Her approach was impersonal, as if she was looking at her life from a distance and describing her emotional death. But then, "this couldn't be the end!" I thought. This is the same woman who despite her ill health which she was clearly struggling with, decided to share her story. Story sharing and specially when it is one's own narrative, can be a difficult and emotionally demanding exercise. I waited for her to continue.

"I was born in a family where there were eight daughters, my mother being the eldest. Interestingly, as the first child of my mother, I opened my eyes to a world that didn't celebrate my birth. My family wanted a boy. My relatives cried tears of regret on my birth.

My father was a reporter/journalist with a news company. When I was young, I remember how one day the news company collapsed and suddenly, we barely had enough to sustain ourselves with two meals a day. Amidst all this chaos and not so rosy a childhood, I used to be a restless kid. I loved playing cricket, badminton, running around and was not exactly the studious kind.Soon as I grew up, my curiosity and my activity prone nature drove me to explore theatre. Poly di was an elder sister and mentor to me who found potential in my body language and groomed me in the art. This was also the time when I stepped into meditation."

I could imagine a sturdy, buxom, earthy-spirited Ria, younger in age, actively playing outside, role-playing in theatre, expressing her free-spiritedness in an energetically conscious way. I couldn't have predicted though what came next in the story.

I am sure you wouldn't either.

"When I was supposed to appear for my Madhyamic or Secondary Examination, I had a major health break down. My nerves got entangled and I was hospitalised. The doctor told my parents that I wouldn't be able to take my examination but I persisted. I not only took the examination but passed with a first division too.

At College , I found myself joining Student Union of SFI. I became an Union Leader and started getting actively involved in campus politics. Soon I had become the Vice President.However, my graduation marks suffered because of my focus on politics. I learnt my lesson the hard way. With the urge to prove myself after having disappointed my family and professors because of my graduation marks, I decided to attempt government services examinations. I also attempted to do a Masters in History in Distance learning mode which I eventually dropped out of. Soon a new opportunity presented itself to me during this time when I learnt of a new course, Masters in Anthropology at Sidhokanhobirsa Purulia University. I applied and got a seat. My father supported me to take up the course. It was during this time when my family went through a series of deaths, first my aunt and then my grandfather. Because of my father's support I continued with my education and came out with flying colours in my graduation.

My background and interest in tribal studies got me the opportunity to be a part of a nationwide workshop on Tribal studies. Through this course again, I started finding my interest in learning more about Human Rights and Tribal Rights. It was in this context that I chanced upon the URI website and contacted the Eastern Zone Coordinator and National Coordinator, Biswadeb Chakraborty. I started working with United Religious Initiative from June 2015 onwards. URI became the platform where I found my growth as my exposure grew and I started attending more conferences and events. Soon I went on to do another Masters in Distance Learning mode from Periyar University in the field of Human Rights."

I could visualise Ria's academic journey and entry into URI as a product of much soul searching, following her instincts and guided by her sense of curiosity. I was keenly following as her story took a turn at this point.

"It was during this time that I started becoming pressurised for marriage at home. I didn't want to get married but my parents finally forced me to get married in the January of 2019.Earlier I had suffered from body-shaming and comparisons with city girls who are more proficient in spoken English and are apparently smarter at many a point in the course of my work. I had grown conscious of how I was looked upon as a small town girl who is not as smart. Marriage scarred me on many of these fronts in a much harsher way." She paused.I waited for her to continue.

"At my in-laws place, I was taunted from the very beginning for being dusky and voluptuous. They would taunt me for not being smart like kolkata girls and started pushing me to get a government job. Sometimes I would be denied fullfilling meals because apparently I was not contributing in terms of money to my household.I was denied access to my own jewellery which I had received at the time of my wedding from my father. They imposed strict dress code on me and I had to wear saree all the time.

During my periods, I would be treated almost like an untouchable. My husband was always distant and emotionally unavailable.

Soon I had sores all over my body because of the dress code. My health started deteriorating. I attempted to convince my parents to allow me to leave my husband but they insisted that I should try to adjust." She took a long deep breath at this point. I could tell that her pain was surfacing triggered by her memories. I wondered if I should ask her to let it be in case she was feeling too pained.

"When I went back to my in-laws home after spending some time at my father's home, I was insulted by my in-laws again. My husband supported the abuse meted out by his parents and my in-laws even forced my father to pay off their loans. My father was under tremendous financial pressure after marrying me off but still tried his best to pay them some of the amount just so that they would treat me well. Soon I was pressurised to study media science because they thought that would get me a job. I soon fell sick again. This time I was diagnosed with Diabetes.

Eventually my parents understood how destructive and toxic this marriage was for me and agreed to support me when I decided to file for a divorce.

I had tried to save my marriage you know. I had dreams too." she paused, a pained longing faintly surfaced as she struggled to recover her sense of composure.

I was stunned at the level of indignities that she had borne over the one year of her marriage and that too with so much grace. I remembered meeting her in January 2020 at an URI event where she was assisting to set up and manage the event. I couldn't have guessed that behind her smiling face and ever present personality, she was battling to emerge out of a nightmare.

"I am now working for a local Television channel as their anchor and reporter. I wish to continue with my interfaith work with URI too. I know this is a bad phase. I just hope I recover soon to embrace this new phase of my life."

As our dialogue drew to a close, I found myself choking up with emotions which were much beyond empathy. "This is just the beginning Ria. Good times are coming. The painful part is over. Trust yourself." I found myself speaking from a space of deep connection.

"I know. I feel it too. Thank you for doing this."

"Well you know what? I am the city girl who speaks well but wishes today that I could have your strength, courage and spirit. There is something so earthy and elegant about you. You are who you are and don't know about you, but I am glad that you didn't try to be one of those kolkata girls. You are a pioneer in connecting with the world through all the good work that you are doing with a global network like URI. And the best part is that you connect authentically and not to suit any other person's standard. Other girls from your hometown would find you to be a good model to look up to."

"Thank you dear. You are kind." she says

"I hope you will find inspiration to share with more of the small town girls! Now you know that they need it."

"I will try. Promise."

The dialogue with Ria was an eye-opening encounter for me. I found myself deeply pained by the kind of debilitating standards that women are forced to hold themselves up to. I guess it hurt more because I happen to be "one of those kolkata girls" who Ria had been made to feel inferior to. In my eyes Ria emerged as the gutsy, well built woman who found herself in her element while playing cricket, running around, indulging in theatre and leading student movements in her college campus and then fending for herself while pursuing community work for URI. Her spirit could not be contained in the narrow boxes set down by society as the means to curtail her growth. In more ways than one Ria had grown to be a pioneer in the way she consciously acknowledged the inferiority narrative that was thrown at her with the hope of breaking her spine. In contesting the same, pushing forward to still reclaim love for herself, she had subconsciously set a standard attitude which is not the common norm for most small town girls. As more of these girls step forward to make a mark in different fields, it is much more than financial independence that can earn them the freedom that they aspire for. It is all about waking up to own your reality one day, acknowledging the journey so far as a factor of the person you have known yourself to be. As Ria looks forward with hope for a new and healthier future, it is her consciousness of her journey and herself that fuels her to keep emerging. I personally made a mental note to check up on her again soon. But for now, let this be the point of her rebirth!

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