She knows that 18 is the legal age of marriage, but it’s so far off. “In five years, she will grow bigger and I can’t keep an eye on her all the time, and what can happen?” she asked. “So many things can happen. Someone could misuse her sexually. Even she could get entangled with some boys who are around. Many things are being shown on TV and the young children imitate it. It’s outside influences.”
She and her husband, Amit, are at work all day, hoeing and planting for a dominant-caste landowner, and cannot guard her. “All the girls her age are married – she’s the only who is not,” she said, wringing her hands. “It’s not right, but parents can’t keep watch so they get them married.”
Guriya’s father chimed in: “If I marry her, this girl is out of my way; it’s off my shoulders.”
Sexual assault is a constant and very real fear – dominant-caste men view Mushahar girls as easy prey who can be assaulted with no legal consequence, since police rarely pursue complaints made by Dalits. A girl must be “chaste” if parents are to secure her a husband. And because a girl becomes the property of her husband’s family, the sooner she and her dowry can be settled, the better, for parents anxious about this huge financial obligation.
Neighbours and relatives squeezed into the room to offer their opinions, but Sister Sudha sent them out again. She put the question at last to Guriya: What do you want to do? Study? Get married?
The girl was rigid with anxiety and the unaccustomed sensation of being given choices about her own life. “Don’t feel scared,” Sister Sudha said, briefly touching her shoulder. “Don’t feel that you’re caught or trapped. What you want is the priority. If there’s any problem with the school, a reason that you didn’t want to come back, I need to know so I can fix it.”
At last, Guriya burst out: “It was better there. I’m not happy at home. I would like to study. I want to go back.”
But back was not part of the plan. Sister Sudha had already given away her spot – there are hundreds of girls on the waiting list. When the seven did not return by the new year, she replaced them. Her goal with this visit was not to bring Guriya back – she felt the family had had an opportunity, and wasted it – but a last attempt to keep her from becoming a child bride.
Sister Sudha constantly steels herself in the face of the endless needs she confronts, but Guriya’s desperation softened her resolve. The nun’s brow crinkled as she tried to work out how she could squeeze one more girl into a dormitory already bursting at its seams. “I’ll try to make an arrangement – only for you,” she said finally. “It’s a last chance.”
She turned then to Lailun. “You did not get a chance. Now, your daughter is getting a chance. You shouldn’t say one word to stop her. Give her a chance to have her dream come true.”
Lailun, by then in tears, pulled up her shawl toward her eyes. “I was thinking, How will I face you,” she said. She had suspected that Guriya would not be allowed simply to disappear.
Sister Sudha left the parents with a warning. “If I learn you are planning to get her married, I’ll lodge a police complaint. For five more years, you must give her education.”
Back in the street, Sister Sudha had to laugh at the sight of Guriya, who was trying and failing to maintain a serious expression; a grin pulled at the corners of the girl’s mouth and she was shivery with excitement. Climbing into her rattletrap jeep, Sister Sudha said with a sigh that she could not be too angry with the parents, because the busybody neighbours remind her how difficult their choices are – to be the first generation to break from tradition, to send their children into a world they have no idea how to navigate.
Her visit, she knows, may give the Manjis cover. Now, if people want to gossip or criticize them about Guriya, they can claim, “We would get her married, of course, but then we might end up in jail.”