Millions of Indian girls are shunned and blamed for any misfortune that strikes their families
Jayalakshmi, 14, playing on the beach at Pondicherry in India, has a kind, pretty face, but her right hand is crooked and she walks with a limp. Her misfortune began the day of her birth, when her twin brother died. Her family asked: why him and not her? From that point on, she became the victim of an ancient superstition
HER life was short and miserable, and her death was barbaric. She died this summer on a street near the bus station, ice cubes scattered near her corpse.
She was 12 years old and lived in the slums of a city in southern India. No one was there to mourn her, and even her family was glad to be rid of her. Her name was Anjeli, and though it carries associations of “angel” in our ears, those who knew her swore she was a child of the devil.
Anjeli has millions of sisters: nearly all of them live in India, nearly all of them are young girls, and hardly anyone knows about them. People call them “cursed children” and hide them away because they are ashamed of them and because they fear that contact with them brings bad luck.
Their families and neighbors not only believe this, but also that the girls are to blame for being cursed: if they had not committed grave injustices in past lives, they wouldn’t have to atone in their present one. And since everyone is responsible for their fate and karma, no one needs to take pity on them. Least of all on a child like Anjeli.
She was damned even in the womb. Her father was murdered while her mother was pregnant. In southern India, a family without a father is a calamity worse than death. When Anjeli was six, her mother died too, then her brother. Everyone asked: so why has this girl survived? There was only one explanation: she was cursed and the cause of the misfortune.
If a male member of the family dies or if a girl’s father or brother falls ill, she runs the risk of being labelled a daritaram, a cursed child. And this is exactly what happened to Anjeli. None of the other children played with her. She was teased at school, and her teachers didn’t intervene. There was no one for miles around who said: “My God, the poor child!”
Patrizia is one of Anjeli’s relatives. Years ago Patrizia moved with her husband to Paris, leaving Pondicherry, the city in southern India where Anjeli met her death. She no longer thinks like an Indian but like a European. Thinking like an Indian means keeping up appearances; never showing feelings, not even within the family; never talking about private matters — least of all about a cursed child who brings shame and disgrace to the family.
Since Patrizia thinks as a European, she talks openly about Anjeli: “After staying with her great-grandmother, she was sent to live with her aunt, and then she went to her cousin’s. Everyone was afraid of her. They said, ‘You were born unlucky, and you have swallowed your family.’”
Patrizia is certain that Anjeli was beaten whenever she was accused of bringing misfortune on the family. And others times too. She was free game. At the same time, the family was afraid that she might talk at school about how badly they treated her, so they kept her at home.
And then one of her uncles, who had cirrhosis of the liver, collapsed on the street. When the doctor told him to give up drinking, her uncle dismissed the warnings, saying he hadn’t collapsed because of the drink but because he had seen the accursed Anjeli.
When Patrizia was visiting her family this summer, a female neighbour cried out: “Anjeli is lying dead in the street!”
Patrizia ran through Pondicherry and found the corpse on a street near the new bus station, with ice cubes lying nearby. Someone had apparently scattered them near her because of the heat. No one stayed with the dead child besides Patrizia. Everyone scurried by.
The curse! They had whispered that a thousand times behind her back.
When Patrizia asked her relatives what Anjeli had died of, the first said, “don’t know”, the second, “brain fever”, and the third, “something at the hospital”.
The truth could be: Anjeli had had a high fever but no one had called a doctor. Why waste money on such a girl? And isn’t the saying that a child given to the gods is in good hands?
But most of all: what does medical science know of the really important matters, of knowledge that has existed for millennia? And don’t the age-old Hindu scriptures, the Vedas, say that everything is preordained, even death? Anjeli will soon be erased from memory.
Jayalakshmi is one of Anjeli’s million sisters. She’s 14 and lives in the village of Periyamudaliyarchavadi, near Pondicherry. She shares a hut with four others: her older sister, her sister’s husband, and their two small sons.
The hut does not have running water or a toilet. It consists of a windowless room, a space in front with a hearth, and a palm roof.
Like all the residents of the village, the family is outside the caste order and thus at the bottom of the strictly hierarchical Indian society. Most of the villagers are day labourers, and mopeds can be seen leaning against nearly all the dwellings. All the men own cellphones, with the exception of the very old. There’s even a flat-screen TV in the hut in which Jayalakshmi lives. Modern technology has found its way into the lives of India’s poor, but their thinking remains medieval.
Jayalakshmi has a kind, pretty face, but her right hand is crooked and she walks with a limp. Her misfortune began the day of her birth, when her twin brother died. Her family asked: why him and not her? From that point on, Jayalakshmi was seen as a cursed child.
Her father was a drinker, and when he was drunk, he beat her. He broke her hand and leg. In what way was that unjust? He was no longer shown any respect — all because of her.
After her father caused an accident, the girl had to go. To a gloomy boarding school, where she stayed two years.
“Then the school sent me away because I was sick in the head,” explains Jayalakshmi. Since her parents didn’t want her back, she went to her sister’s. She’s not beaten there, she says, and one hopes it’s true.
Three years ago, the tsunami swept over the Gulf of Bengal and struck the village in which Jayalakshmi lives, yet this was a blessing in disguise. The German ethnologist Hilde Link, who has been conducting research in India for years, used donations to build a school for gifted children from nearby villages — and for disabled children like Jayalakshmi.
At the age of 14, she is now learning to read and write.
In India people are not only ashamed of the cursed children in the family, but of the disabled ones as well. Their handicap casts a bad light on the family, and they are often not sent to school.
Jayalakshmi is both cursed and disabled — sometimes one results from the other. But part of the good luck that came of disaster is that now, when she’s hungry, she can eat her fill at school. And when she’s sick, a doctor will examine her for free. When poor families are forced to economise, it’s the girls, primarily the cursed ones, who suffer first.
Anjeli came from a very low caste, but Jayalakshmi is on an even lower rung in society since her family is not even in the caste system. Gandhi’s euphemistic description of these “outcasts” was “children of God”.
They call themselves dailit, the downtrodden, the impure. There are an estimated 200 million dailit in India. “But there are also cursed children in higher castes,” says Vasantha, the beautiful, educated female director of the Prana Project, which runs Jayalakshmi’s school. The cursed children from the upper castes are better off, says Vasantha, “because their families usually have more money to send them to boarding school”.
If a cursed girl lives in the city, she has an easier life than in the country. “Social control by neighbours is weaker, and they can usually keep the curse a secret.”
If the cursed children are unlucky, they begin working as devadasi, or temple dancers, at a very young age, sometimes four or five. In an age-old Hindu ritual, they are consecrated to a goddess. But in truth they are put at the sexual disposal of every man in the village. The devadasi are held in contempt and ostracised in their communities.
They are not permitted to marry and are only able to earn a few rupees as prostitutes. But even the cursed girls that stay in their extended families are sexual prey for all the men.
Feelings of guilt?
Sense of injustice?
Whatever for? It is the right of every man to sexually abuse a woman of a lower caste without making himself impure. So why should different rules apply to the accursed? When the girls grow up, they usually become prostitutes.
Sometimes hope springs up in places where one expects it least: a leper colony. It is here that Panjali, a petite 36-year-old, lives and works, having escaped her seeming preordained fate. The banner over the entrance to the colony in Pondicherry reads: “Leprosy is a disease, not a sin.”
But what does the government know? Panjali’s grand- father had leprosy, her father drank, and since the family naturally believed that leprosy was a sin, Panjali was seen as a cursed child. But Panjali escaped this lunacy, this inescapable spiral of hereditary good luck and bad. There was no school in the leper colony at the time, but one day the authorities sent a teacher.
“My first school was under a tree.” She finished first in her class. “I wanted to be the best in everything I did, and I was the best in everything I did. I knew it was the only way out.”
She was married against her wishes at the age of 17. She had two sons and trained to be a physiotherapist, the only woman in a group of 20 men. Naturally she graduated first in her class. Now when she talks to a stranger, her neighbours in the leper colony whisper: “She’s surely a prostitute.”
What other option does a single woman have? And Panjali talks with many “strangers” since she advises tuberculosis patients and HIV victims for the World Care Council.
“I’m going to remain in the leper colony,” she says and makes a fist with both hands. “The easiest thing to do would be to go and hide. Staying means fighting.”And so this dark tale has an encouraging ending.