February 15, 2010

Dasrath’s Story, Part III: Jhum Bai’s Dream

For background, see previous postsPart I: Initial Presentation and Surgery and Part II: The Harshness of Village Life

Jhum Bai returned to Ganiyari with Dasrath to discuss her life, even her destiny, defined by abject poverty, her husband’s will and childlessness.  Expecting despair, I found instead hopefulness and resiliency.  Dr. Ramani Atkuri joined me for this interview.

Jhum Bai with Ramani at the JSS medical compound in Ganiyari Village 

Jhum Bai explained: “There are no children at home – except Dasrath (age 10), my brother-in-law. My husband’s older brother is single and has made clear he doesn’t want to marry. So the burden is on me.  I have one or two years”, she relates, “to have a child. If I don't, my husband, Kunwar, will take another woman…and I will leave; go back to my parents’ home. There is further pressure from my parents. They remind me disapprovingly that my brother married about the same time I did. He has two children while I have none.”

We brought up adoption as a remote possibility.  In rural India, the custom is to adopt within the family.  For example it could be a relative’s girl child where there are too many mouths to feed.  Not Jhumbai’s situation.

“Would you marry again?”
“No, no one will marry a woman who can’t have children.”
Nor, she added, would she consider living with another man not her husband.
But this fate, feared by all childless women, is not sealed.  Jhum Bai is yet hopeful.

“Why haven’t you sought medical help after six years of trying to have a child?”
“Over the past two years, every time, I bring Dasrath for a visit to Ganiyari (the site of JSS’s clinics and hospital), my husband says: ‘Why don’t you have yourself checked up?’ He has been urging me to get examined almost from the beginning.”

She hasn’t, she admits, because the thought of a gynecological exam has overwhelmed her with embarrassment, even if the doctor be a woman.  But now that she is more familiar with JSS, she says, she hopes to overcome her shyness.

Ramani adds that among village women, there is a shroud of secrecy about vaginal bleeding, discharges or pelvic pain. Further, itching, irritation or a white discharge from the vagina is so common as to be considered normal. Help is seldom sought and practically never discussed with others. Only when pain, as in the late stages of cervical cancer, becomes overwhelming do village women seek medical help.  Mothers even avoid discussion of menstruation with their daughters.  Jhum Bai has never talked with other young women in the village about her concerns.

 Jhum Bai with a hint of embarrassment

Dr. Ramani explained that in any case, the initial approach would be to determine if her husband is fertile, a sperm count.  Her husband would only have to go to Shivterai, a JSS sub-center close to their village. The idea of male infertility was a realm beyond. Jhum Bai promised to speak with her husband. To Jhum Bai and Kunwar, the idea of male infertility is novel. His response is in no way assured to be positive. Generally in village India, a rumor, any hint, of a man’s lack of “virility” would by itself bring shame and ridicule.  So why then be tested?

Other than an explanation, at menarche, from her mother that menstrual flow would come monthly, and awareness that sexual relations may result in pregnancy, Jhum Bai has no knowledge of reproduction or the relevant female anatomy. That the uterus exists was news to her today.

Jhum Bai absorbing the revelations on causes of infertility.

Jhum Bai’s education ended during the preschool years as her father had fallen ill and the family needed her to do the household chores and to take care of the infants in the family. Even had she continued through the primary grades, sex education has not come to the village schools of Chhattisgarh nor to most schools in India, even in larger towns.

We asked about her happiness.  “My husband treats me well”, she replied.  "He doesn’t get drunk or beat me.  I know he loves me as I do him.  And I have friends my own age in the village.  We go together to the forest to get wood.  Sometimes I go with Kunwar to Kota, the nearest village with a market.

“What do you think about all day?” I asked.
“If I were better off, I wouldn’t have to do all these chores. If I were rich, I would buy jewelry and some farm land.”  Jhum Bai has a few, commonplace bangles and hardly any other jewelry, marking her as the poorest of the poor.  Today, she arrived dressed in a sari in tatters.

“How will life be different if you have a child?”, I asked.
“A child will give me inspiration to live. Someone to live for and build a future. It doesn't matter whether it will be a girl or boy. I will devote my life to that child and do everything possible to see that my child receives a good education. Without an education, a child can’t get anywhere.”

Jhum Bai added that the Mangalpu village school goes through the 5th grade.  Then, in the nearby village of Karka up to the 8th grade, only two kilometers away.  In Kota, 5 kilometers distance, there is a high school. Currently, three children from the village go there, two boys and a girl.  All have bicycles.

“You are young”, we said. “Would you like to go back to school?”  Jhum Bai replied: “Yes, I would if my husband would agree.  I could go to school from eight in the morning until one and then go home and work until eight in the evening.” I mentioned that we could help her financially make this possible.  Jhum Bai said she would seek her husband's consent. 

“If not, and I don’t have a child and am rejected, once back with my parents, I’ll find work and, then, I’ll try to go back to school. I would not be interested in marrying again nor living with another man.” All of this as if we were discussing the weather, her mood betrayed only by the self-control borne of a lifetime of the lowest of expectations.

A moment of reflection

We asked how she came to marry, here in Mangalpur village, one the poorest of the region.  Jhum Bai replied, “Before I married, my family was better off. We had more to eat. When my parents decided that the time had come for me to marry, they considered three suitors. Two came from families with greater wealth. The third, Kunwar, came from a poorer family.  My mother said: “This will be a better marriage.  The richer suitors will treat you with little respect. The poorer suitor is more likely to treat you well.”  So it came to pass.

Jhum Bai is driven with a determination to improve her lot in life. After she married Kunwar, she nevertheless managed to save over the years, so that they now have pots and pans. Think of it: pots and pans – but not enough food to avoid hunger! She told us that the other girls in the village used to make fun of her for marrying into such a poor family but her tireless basket weaving brings in two dollars weekly. Not even her husband knows, but she is keeping these savings in secret for hard times ahead.

Update on Dasrath: On the way to JSS today, Dasrath suffered a seizure and, while with us, still another while playing outside on the grounds. Yogesh Jain is once again adjusting his anti-seizure medications. 

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