Her Nana had gifted her a bright yellow sweater. “Made of the finest fur you get in Darjeeling”. She had that on this morning, what with the day being special and all that. Though she was all of four and a half years, she “got ready on my own”. It was another story that her escapades with the comb and the powder would have Mumma in fits.
Today was the big day. Papa would drive them down to the big red building, which Mumma called school. The two of them had spent last month going through alphabets and numbers. She could say her A, B, C until Z and boy, was she proud! Papa had also taught her some numbers so she knew two apples and three bananas made for five fruits. Like Nani was fond of saying, she was a sona mey (golden girl, in Bengali).
The queue in the reception was huge. There were so many children like her, complete with entourages reciting animal and colour names. She looked at Mumma anxiously; Mumma smiled. “You are the best. Don’t worry about what anyone says or does.” Papa sighed. “Aren’t I glad we had no school entry tests? I would never have passed.” Papa was such a comic. She laughed loudly and went inside the activity room.
A middle-aged lady with a box full of interesting things stood inside. For all the colour around her – some other kids were also wearing fur sweaters in purple and green – she was the picture of drab. And sullen. There was also another lady, sweet-faced and smiling. The sullen one said. “I will be telling you what to do, kids. I want no noise here.” They all shut up. The boy standing next to her stopped pulling her braid.
She handed out some modelling clay to all of them. It felt smooth to touch. “So all the boys here,” she began “will make balls with the clay. Cricket, football, ping-pong. Okay?” Wow, she thought. This should be fun. Ping pong ball it would be. Just like the green one her Mama had bought for her birthday.
“And all the girls,” she went on, “will make rotis. Chapattis, in good round form. Start!” For a while, she stood transfixed. She was a good way ahead with her ping-pong ball already. “Ma’am, can I please make a ping-pong ball?” “Aren’t you a girl? You heard what I said.” The epitome of sullenness. “But, I don’t know how to make a roti. Mumma and Papa make it for me at home.” “You are running out of time.”
She was furious. The ping-pong ball sat quietly on the table, craving attention. She could not understand why only the girls had to be given boring rotis to make. If at all they were necessary, as she guessed they were, she would learn to make them when she grew up. She looked at the boys. They were busy squishing the clay under their feet.
Ten minutes later, she handed over her completed ping-pong ball to the lady on a chair – who accepted it with a smile. She hesitated and then went on. “I did not want to make a roti Ma’am. I wanted to make a ball. And look, I have made it like the circle Papa taught me about. Could I make a roti when I feel like it, or when someone is hungry perhaps?” The lady laughed, ruffled her hair and nodded.
One week later, the little girl was in that school. Nursery A.
By the by, the little girl has now grown up. She still doesn’t believe that gender-based roles are written in stone. Instead, she likes to keep responsibilities balanced and give everyone a fair chance to do what they are fond of. In her turn, she never forgets to take that chance either. She stands up for what she thinks is right and her priorities – ah, they are sacrosanct.
Between her partner and her, they manage a roti that looks and tastes like one. They also manage a lot of other goodies – white rice with coriander leaves, golden daal and chilly chicken, for instance. When she feels motivated enough, she even gets down to sharing her roti story with the cyber space.
— Written for the ‘I Stood Up’ blogathon on Women’s Web.