Metro stations, roads, temples, houses, offices, gardens, wherever I’ve seen women, I’ve seen stories. Of courage, of love, of forgiveness, of freedom, of struggles, innumerable stories that make them a single body but thousand souls. As they say – we’re women, our choices are not easy: there are women who defy this concept everyday. With their laughter, efforts, love, compassion, self-determination, they make the toughest choices and win over circumstances even when the society addresses them as the weaker sex.
Humans of Bombay brings together hundreds of beautiful stories, but a few stories about these women made me cry like a small baby, filled me with motivation and strength and sometimes just left me stumped, cold and pensive. Here I am, sharing a few of my personal favourite stories about women who are as ordinary as the smell of wet mud and as special as sparkling stars.
“I’m still working because I still like to fend for myself — and I’m grateful that all three of my daughters are like me — working and not depending on anyone else.”
“I lost my husband 18 years ago and it’s been a difficult journey raising 3 daughters by myself.”
“What has been the hardest part?”
“Convincing my family that educating them was more important than making them help at home or doing odd jobs.”
“What happened then?”
“I educated all 3 of them to the best of my ability and eventually they started getting part time, then full time jobs and taking care of me. By God’s grace they’re all well settled, I have grandchildren and I’m still working because I still like to fend for myself — and I’m grateful that all three of my daughters are like me — working and not depending on anyone else.”
“Some may look at our lives as sad or tragic, but the truth is we’re happy, because we can do what we like with the money we earn, and because we’re finally able to live for ourselves.”
“We live in the same neighbourhood since about 40 years now– it’s a small slum area just down the road. Life has actually put us through some pretty difficult experiences around the same time. Where we come from, the men think it’s normal to drink alcohol every night and on many occasions, through the day. Desi alcohol is available cheap and at every other joint– so our men would drink together and be happy with the little income they earned because it got us two square meals and a roof over our head.
It was us women who were concerned about the bigger costs — sending our children to school, buying their books and having at least a small tube light at home, under which they could study. We realized that everyday while we were doing our chores, we would worry and complain about this same issue day in and day out. We tried talking to our husbands about doing something, but so many times we would not get a reply, and when we did, it would be ‘we’ll see what to do’. Finally, we decided that we would have to do something ourselves — we all set out to find jobs; any job that required manual labour. They both got jobs as domestic help, and I got a job as a cleaner at a nearby school.
With time, we realized that we were happier outside the house rather than listening to our husbands slur and abuse us at home. Strangely enough, all three of our husbands passed away or left us around the same time — two of our husbands passed away in a car accident, and her husband left her for another woman. But instead of feeling sad, we felt liberated in a way — no one likes being woken up late at night by a drunk man, and more than anything, our children no longer had to feel scared of beatings or having no school to go to.
We have full time jobs now, and at around 6 every evening, we meet here, enjoy some fresh air, chat about our days and wait for the chaat wala to come. Some may look at our lives as sad or tragic, but truth is, we’re happy because we can do what we like with the money we earn, and because we’re finally able to live for ourselves.”
“When we reached the top, I struggled to feel something; there were people crying and others screaming, but I just felt silence, I felt ‘Shuniya’, I felt complete.”
“Every summer holiday, my family would pack up a bag and go to the Himalayas. We would trek, explore, meet locals, stay in tents and cook our own food – there was something about the mountains that called out to me since then. I was so passionate, that over the next few years, I completed the basic and advanced mountaineering course, and in 2008 I became the youngest person in the world to climb the Satopanth peak in the Himalayas. It was around this time that climbing Everest became my dream— but it wasn’t easy.
To start off, it’s a really expensive process but my family did everything they could for me. My father took a loan from the bank and our house was put on mortgage without telling me a word — I was told that big corporates finally came ahead to sponsor my expedition. At 19, not only was I the youngest person on my team, but I was also the only woman — and that pushed me harder.
We began the climb, and the journey to Everest brought difficult circumstances to us. Early on, we had to face an avalanche and a snow storm, but the worst part of it was losing a team member. I was scared, but I couldn’t allow the fear to take over me… so the only thing to do was to move forward. Over the next few days, 2 more of our team members had to be rescued half way, but I was determined to get to the top and take in as much as I could on the way.
I distinctly remember a moment when I was above the clouds, and the sun began to rise on one end, and the shadow of the mountain gave darkness to another. I was part of that shadow but I was still above the sun. It was a moment when everything stood still; I was a part of day and night all at once.
When we reached the top, I struggled to feel something, there were people crying and others screaming but I just felt silence, I felt Shuniya, I felt complete. The only thing that came to my mind at that point was my family, and how I wanted to make it back down to tell them about the top; about how much I love them.
I did reach down safely and in the same year, I attempted to become the first woman to climb the 7 highest peaks— but 750m away from the final peak in Alaska, there was a political intrusion and I couldn’t finish my climb or get the record — I was so upset, I cried for hours. It was only later that I realised how foolish we are to give so much importance to success or failure, but no importance to the journey of it all.
I got back to life and started to tell the stories of my climb through my dance. So that’s my story — I’ve climbed Mount Everest, and I understand that just because I have, doesn’t mean I’ll be successful or always make it to the top – it doesn’t mean everything I do will be as thrilling as the climb— it just means that I’m trying, and I will put all my heart into trying no matter the success or failure. That’s the one thing climbing Everest taught me — that there is infinite power in what the heart wants and if you have the courage to trust it, life will present magnificent things to you…not necessarily ‘at the top’ but even on the way there.”
“I began to counsel cancer patients ever since, because for me defeating it twice wasn’t enough— I wanted to defeat it as many times as I possibly can.”
“I’ve been a primary grade teacher at GD Somani since years. I’ve lived a great life with a few ups and downs…but that’s everyone’s life. Life is very ironical at times — all my life, I’ve been surrounded by children, but after marriage I had several miscarriages and then delivered a still born. That was the hardest phase of my life, but finally I gave birth to my twins, prematurely but they grew up to be healthy and happy.
In 1998, after my aerobics class, I felt a kind of pain in my breast, but shrugged it off thinking it was a muscle pull. A few days later, I felt two lumps and realised that it wasn’t just any pain…I rushed to the doctor immediately and got my tests done. I tested positive for breast cancer and almost immediately had to get surgery. I still remember, on the way back after my surgery was complete, I gave my husband a fist bump and said ‘we’ll be okay’, even though the doctor had just told me I had 25% chances of survival. How exactly should I put this in words? That feeling of knowing that you may not live to see another day or get to see your children grow up and become parents themselves was overwhelming. Through this whole time, I didn’t once ask, “why me?” — I didn’t indulge in any form of self pity. My whole life focus shifted from being sad to becoming a fighter. There were days that I cried, but for every tear I shed, I fought harder. I forced myself to laugh, to distract my mind and enable myself — very often, I would fight with the hospital staff if they tried to help me go to the loo…even though I would fall on the way, I made sure I did it on my own.
Long story short, I beat cancer, but in 2004, I was detected once again. I underwent multiple chemo sessions and lost all my hair, but I distinctly remember not giving it too much energy. I didn’t have any hair on my eyebrows, so I would color them in with a brown pencil. My nails would turn black, so I would paint them a new color everyday to make me happy. I would experiment with different wigs and love my look…there were times when I went out completely bald and people asked me if I had just visited Tirupathi and I would play along! My whole life became about being happy no matter what my situation and the fundamental rule of life is — a disease cannot exist in a body that has positive energy. I beat cancer, again and this time, I came back with a thumping victory. I began to counsel cancer patients ever since, because for me defeating it twice wasn’t enough— I wanted to defeat it as many times as I possibly can.
The only thing that’s different about me now is that I often ask the question, “Why me?” just so that I can say the answer out loud — “Because I’m strong enough to handle anything that life throws at me…and because I already have!”
“The person whose phone this is, is dead, come claim the body’; and I was shattered. I had no idea what to do or where to go, so I sat down on the floor and cried.”
“I’ve always been a homemaker, while my husband worked at the railway station. We were very content with our lives— I was very happy raising my two daughters at home, and he used to love his job. Suddenly one year, I fell really ill, and I was hospitalised for a couple of months, when we faced some difficulty managing everything. So, my husband called his mother from our village to look after me. After a few months, when I recovered and my mother-in-law was leaving to return to Patna, my husband went alone to drop her off at the station, sometime around 9PM. I was sleeping when my sister in-law called me around 10 PM, told me about the 26/11 attacks, and said my husband wasn’t answering his phone. I rushed down to the PCO to call him, and after trying many times, someone finally picked up and said, “The person who’s phone this is, is dead… come claim the body’, and I was shattered. I had no idea what to do or where to go, so I sat down on the floor and cried.
It took me many months to recover — from seeing his body, to realising that I had lost my partner forever. As time went by, I pulled myself together — I had to. I had two daughters who had their whole lives in front of them, and I had to make sure that I did everything I could to educate them better. I received compensation from the government, which I used for their education and to take care of the house and my mother. I was also offered a job from the railway, but since I had only studied until the 8th grade, I couldn’t get a job that paid me half as well, but I took it anyway. I wanted to set a better example for my daughters, so after a few months I decided to join school again. Those days were absolutely crazy; from preparing food for my daughters, to dropping them to school, going to work, coming home, cooking dinner, doing my homework and rushing to night school at 7 PM… I have no idea where the strength came from! I just loved that I was educating myself to never feel helpless again — I finally passed my 10th grade exam, and am on my way to clearing my 12th, and through this time, I got my promotion as well!
I know my husband would have been proud of me, of us — my daughters are doing so well at school. Sometimes, life takes people away…I still sometimes question why 26/11 had to ever happen, but the only way to fight back is to not give up. Every year, that day marks the death anniversary of my partner, but it also remains the day I became independent, where I didn’t succumb to the terror, but used the pain to make my girls and me stronger.”
“Often, I hear that we live in a male-dominated society, but I have never let my gender come in the way of what I wanted to achieve.”
“My father was a freedom fighter, and my whole life I’ve wanted to be like him— to make a difference for my country. Even though I’m a certified doctor, my heart always longed to serve the country.A major event that happened early on in my life was meeting my partner — I found my entire world in one person. What started off as an innocent attraction turned into a lifelong bond — at 18, we knew we wanted to spend the rest of our lives together, and our parents didn’t approve, so we set out on our own since then.
He knew that I wanted to empower myself and do something for the country, so as a stepping stone, he began to train me in martial arts. We would go to work all day and at night train until sunrise…with every passing day, I felt more independent and powerful. I wanted to become a commando trainer and I was so determined that I trained harder than ever before.Once, when my husband and I were in Pune, we passed a group of army men who were training in the morning. We approached them, told them who we were, and asked them if they would like us to demonstrate our form of training, and they agreed. Since then, we haven’t looked back. We began to train army personnel all over the country, and I became India’s first woman commander trainer.
As time went by and my commitment to this cause grew, my in-laws disapproved of me; the woman of the house undergoing such intense training, and one day asked us to leave their home. My husband and I moved into this small clinic space, which is the only place we had at that time, but this is something that brought us even closer together. Those were difficult days— I’ve sold a lot of my jewellery to make ends meet, but I have absolutely no regrets. I spent most of my youth in freezing high altitudes, scorching hot deserts, dense jungles and hostile LOCs, and I loved every minute of it.
It was sometime then that the conversation of starting a family came up, and after many healthy conversations, my husband and I decided to adopt. I was at the peak of my career and I didn’t even want to stop for a second, so this way, we could balance our work and the child without having to give anything up. We adopted our little girl, who is now a doctor and what can I say…she makes us proud every single day.
So while I am a doctor, I pride myself on the fact that since the past 20 years, I have trained without any compensation over 20,000 Indian soldiers from every elite force including the NSG BlackCats, IAF Guards, Indian Navy Marcos, BSF and many more. In fact, after the 26/11 attacks, I was called in to train the police of 16 cities. There have been many lows in my life – on the family front, on the health front – I’ve been injured multiple times; and on the financial front as well…but I didn’t stop.
Often, I hear that we live in a male dominated society, but I have never let my gender come in the way of what I wanted to achieve. My husband and I have always been equals, and that’s why we’re so strong – from work to family we’re equally invested in both. As a society, that’s how we evolve – by having strong, independent women who are supported by strong, independent men as equals – two halves who can take on the world together.”
“It feels amazing to contribute to our family income. My husband said that this is the best gift I’ve given him!”
“My father never allowed to work before marriage, but my husband was of the opinion that I should do something and not just sit at home. This Diwali, I decided to surprise him — I made these beautiful lanterns for him to sell. So, we both sit at the stall together after he finishes work — he handles all the money, while I sell! The stall is doing so well; it feels amazing to contribute to our family income. My husband said that this is the best gift I’ve given him, and we’re going to celebrate with some jalebis tonight!
“I joined a female motorcycle group, and saw that there was a group of women going to Goa on their bikes. I wondered if it would be appropriate for a homemaker to leave her kids and family and go out on a bike journey.”
“When I was 6 years old, I got breathless and was admitted to the hospital. I had a growth in my windpipe called Papillomas and as a result, I had to depend on an oxygen tank until I was 18. After multiple surgeries, I was able to breathe normally, but my voice was barely audible — until today, I have to get a laser surgery every year, or else I lose my voice.
I am a homemaker. I have two sons and a loving husband, but I’ve always felt like I need to do more and be more. Many years ago, we had only one car and my husband would take that car to work. Whether it was dropping my children to school or tuition classes or running my errands, I would always have to go in an auto. So, I decided to start saving money for a bike. Every month I would save a little, and after a year and a half, I was able to purchase my own bike— and the second I drove it, I fell in love. More than anything, it gave me the independence to move around freely — it may not sound like a lot to you, but it was everything to me.
I joined a female motorcycle group, and saw that there was a group of women going to Goa on their bikes…I wondered if it would be appropriate for a homemaker to leave her kids and family and go out on a bike journey. When I told my family about this opportunity they were so supportive; in fact they pushed me to go for it! My husband said he will make sure he’s at home more, and my older son said that he would take are of his younger brother. I made their study time tables for them, organised their drops to school and tuition and took off — I went to Goa and back by bike with a group of women and it was the most liberating feeling of my life…and it had only just begun.
Last year, I even completed a ride to Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand, but the highlight of my life has been when I got chosen to go to Khardung La by TVS Scooty Zest. At first when I applied, I thought that from 50,000 applicants there was a slim chance, but I almost immediately got a call saying I was on board!
The journey was a beautiful one — of course, there was a lot of difficult terrain, but it was all worth it, when we got to the top on August 21st. In fact, I turned 50 on that very day, and the rest of my group organised a cake and sang for me on top of the peak. I remember the moment I reached the top— I started screaming! Never before had I felt so free, powerful and complete. When I got to the top, I felt that I had my own identity; that I wasn’t just someone’s mother, or wife – I was me. I am a 50-year old homemaker who has a passion for bikes… and I just got to the top of one of the highest peaks in the country. Age? No barrier. Profession? No Barrier? Disability? No Barrier. Truth is, the only barrier is you, and if you really want something, no power in this world can stop you from getting it.”
“Even when the doctors painted a bleak picture, which consisted of possibilities of haemorrhage or paralysis, I focused all my energy on the beauty of life. I felt liberated.”
“I’ve had a funny relationship with cancer. In 2005, I was detected with breast cancer, and I had to undergo 6 chemo sessions and 30 radiation cycles until I was finally cured. I thought I had won the cat and mouse game with cancer, but in 2013, when I started feeling increasingly nauseous and weak, I got an MRI done and realised that I had stage 4 brain cancer.
I won’t lie — At 62, when the doctor told us that I had 8 days to live, I was terrified. I remember that night, lying in Bhatia hospital, processing the news… I didn’t know if I would sleep. But then I visualised my guru, took his name, and said to him, “From here on, you are responsible for me.” Then I did what most people find difficult to do — I let it go completely. I stopped giving it any energy… I stopped making cancer bigger than me. As I went through 20 sittings of brain radiation and one massive surgery after the other, I kept myself busy and amused. Even when the doctors painted a bleak picture which consisted of possibilities of haemorrhage or paralysis, I focused all my energy on the beauty of life. I felt liberated.
I still remember that I had lost 10 kgs, but when everyone was around me in the hospital, I would say – ‘check out my muscles’, and they would all burst out laughing. My daughters were scared of telling me that I had a bald patch, so when I went to the hairdresser to get a haircut and saw it for the first time, I burst out laughing and said “Oh God, now I have lesser hair than your father!” If they were my last 8 days here, I wanted to focus on the beauty of life and that’s what I did. I lived every moment with love for my family and everything around me.
My daughters and I started meditating to calm our minds. I started doing a lot of yoga. With a heart filled with faith, I prayed to my guru and moved onto a raw fruit and juice diet. The doctors had given me about 5 medicines to have three times a day and asked for tests every three months. My family would go through immense pain each time I would go for these tests, so I made a resolve to become so fit that I was no longer a cause of pain to my family.
And it was with that resolve that today, I can do yoga for two hours each day; my weight has increased again, I walk for about half an hour, take no medicines whatsoever and feel happier and healthier than ever before. In fact, I’ve even started teaching children at a wellness centre.
So there, both 62 and cancer have nothing on me. In fact, I think they’ve come to fear me and my strength – I’m pretty much THEIR worst nightmare!”
“Why is beauty so superficial? You may be fair and I’m dark, but I still feel beautiful. Why is beauty associated with skin color? Why does where I come from matter?”
“I was born in Kamathipura. My mother used to be a sex worker because she was trafficked here from Kerala, but when she met my father who fell madly in love with her, she gave it all up. Even though they were married and she started working as domestic help, my family couldn’t afford to move out of Kamathipura.
Growing up, I faced a lot of discrimination. I had everything going against me; I was a dark skinned Indian girl from a red light area. At school, the other children refused to talk to me or play with me. They would call me a ‘crow’ or ‘black cow’ behind my back and treat me like an untouchable. I was always by myself and at the age of 10, one of my professors at my school took advantage of the situation and raped me. Our education system is such that we’re not even taught about what a good touch or a bad touch is, so how was I to know? I was too scared to tell anyone until the age of 16, when I began therapy and realized that I had been raped.
My only coping mechanism through everything has been theatre. I’m part of a street play group where we go around explaining through theatre what a ‘bad touch is’, or about menstruation and sex. So many times, the cops in Bombay have shooed us away because they hear the word ‘sex’; it’s so infuriating that we live in a place where we’d rather let our daughters get raped then explaining these things, just because it’s considered a taboo.
My parents moved back to Kerala in 2013, but I’ve been here in Bombay because Kamathipura is my home. And it’s a beautiful home; there’s so much love here. The women here are amazing, beautiful humans who have treated me like their daughter. I remember, a few months ago, I was crossing the road when a taxi drove over my foot and refused to even stop. To him, anything he did in Kamathipura was acceptable, because everyone there is ‘dirty’ according to him. But these 2-3 women charged up to him and said “How can you treat our daughter like this?…get out of your car and apologize.” So many times men will look at me and make lewd gestures, but these women will come to my defence and tell them to back off.
Funny, isn’t it? I was never discriminated against in Kamathipura, but I was outside. I was never sexually abused here, but I was at a school in Bombay. That’s why I’m still here. Through Kranti, I went to San Francisco for a programme called ‘Girl on the Run’, and I learnt so much. I found people were so accepting of my color, my background and my abuse. For the first time, I could speak freely about sex without worrying about a cop shooing us away. I learnt so much that I wanted to come back here and make my home a more accepting place through my theatre.
Why is beauty so superficial? You may be fair, and I’m dark, but I still feel beautiful. Why is beauty associated with skin color? Why does where I come from matter? Why can’t we see people for the good in them? Why can’t we just accept?”
These people were interviews by the team of Humans of Bombay.