“We all have powers of one kind or another. But in our own way, we are all Spider-Man.” – Mary Jane Parker
Her father had almost ruined her life.
It was the seventies. Although a number of powerful women proved themselves in India and abroad, there were also common women, and for the common woman in India, unfortunately, the society placed her in an endless cycle of duties as a mother, wife, and daughter, which obliterated her identity as well as restrained her existence within the society. Because India was diverse and vast, women’s status depended on their position within the stratified society.
Eleven-year-old Munni lived in a place considered very backward by every standard, where women were mostly stay-at-home-moms, sisters, or daughters who did not have much status.
“Baba, I want to study. Who gets married at this age? All my friends go to school and I want to do the same,” the confident voice of a little girl reverberated in the room.
A slap from her Baba rang in her ears before she felt the heat spread across her face. Munni raised her hand to her face, too late to shield her stinging cheek.
“You will do what your Baba says, do you understand? Misbehaved girl!” he hissed. He snatched the books from her pudgy fingers and hurled her into the next room.
Hailing from a small village Rajaoli in the Nawada District of Bihar, Munni was married into a very abusive family at the age of eleven. As if physical abuse from her in-laws and elderly husband was not enough, the entire village started to blame her for the failed marriage. Terrified by the situation, Munni’s father, Lohra, called her back home. But being unable to bear the brunt of social pressure because of a failed marriage, Munni attempted suicide.
Munni’s failed suicide attempt opened the flood gate for more misery, embarrassment, and abuse for her—from the society and family both.
Munni became completely dependent on her father—an irresponsible man, who consumed himself with Hariya (a Santhali alcoholic drink) and his laziness. So what if he was her father? He still was not very kind to Munni. He would often shame Munni for bringing disgrace to the family and her younger sisters. Lohra was in constant worry that because of Munni’s incident, no other family would accept a marriage proposal for his younger daughters.
The family was already very poor, but after Munni’s incident, the society didn’t even find them worthy enough to let them do the labor work they had done earlier. The family was facing a major financial crisis. Lohra was selfish, fickle minded, and unable to face his reality or responsibilities. He was just a dreamer, not a doer. He blamed Munni for all the happenings.
In desperation, Lohra illegally sold his eleven-year-old daughter Munni as a bonded laborer, for money. He considered Munni’s education a poor investment, since she was expected to eventually marry and leave the household.
“Baba, where are you sending me? Am I not your daughter anymore?”
Lohra stayed quiet, but his fingers bit crescent moons into Munni’s shoulder. She wriggled from his hold and struggled against his iron grip, wailing, while he thrashed her on the ground, which was full of rain water and fallen leaves. Munni choked down a mouthful of dirty water. Before she could get up to her feet, Lohra shook her until her head wobbled in affirmation. Munni felt her lungs scorching. Black specks multiplied in her vision. Just when the dots began to merge into a single darkness, Munni’s mother pulled her up by her hair.
Munni was gone. She was separated from her family. Forever.
Being sent away from her family, especially her mother, took an everlasting toll on Munni. She was heartbroken to see herself depart from the family at such a young age. This incident not only ended Munni’s childhood, but also killed every ounce of respect she had for her father. When she had been forced to leave, Mother had appeared blank, just staring at Munni and crying tearlessly.
Munni saw her mother as a powerless victim, just as she was.
She believed that her mother’s defeat and servitude was her father’s doing. Munni was taken to a “gymkhana” community, where she worked as a servant to clean the equipment, serve water, clean the dirty towels, the gym floor, and the toilets. A heavy stench of sweat permeated the air wherever eleven-year-old Munni would totter around doing small chores. She had one goal: to survive.
At first glance, Munni appeared content with her surroundings. She laughed sometimes in between occasional bouts of dejection when she was forced to clean the spilled-over stinking urine around the urinals. When asked if she was happy, she would demurely nod yes.
“Are you sure you are happy?” Munni was asked again. Suddenly, her shoulders would drop. Her bright eyes – now bleak – would break eye contact. “No,” she would respond.
The gym had a growing population of two hundred people. It so happened that a man in his 20’s turned out to be a state champion in weight lifting in that community. This sparked the motivation among men from the village to pay special attention to bodybuilding and exercise.
Men treated her as their private property in that gym, ordering her around for chores. But Munni never cared much. After all, she was just eleven years old. Even Though this was her age to play and study, but here she was working as a slave without being aware of it.
The gym was doing a very good business. People were getting more and more aware of their health and physical appearances. Little by little, by the spread of mouth, a few women also joined the club, however they were not comfortable exercising on the same floor as the men. The owner of the gym soon realized that, and saw a good business opportunity.
The building started growing, with more floors and roofs added.
After some time, the upper floor was assigned only to women members. Munni was moved to the upper floor where women worked out. It was a big relief for her. Now Munni didn’t have to face the dirty looks from some men. She felt safer and happier upstairs. She could now talk freely to other women. Sometimes other women would sympathize with her.
Time was tough for Munni, but it still flew by. She grew to be a beautiful twenty-two year old woman, working at the gym. All this time, she had also gained lots of trust from her owner because of her work ethics and good nature.
“Munni you are not just the cleaning lady anymore; you have become my helping hand in every regard.” The owner leaned on her shoulder heavily. “Today, I am liberating you from your bonded slavery.”
Where will I go? What else could I do? I can’t accept my life going in the direction it’s going. I am certainly not fated to do what I am doing right now.
I am free! I am free!
While Munni had worked at the gym, Lohra had kept on collecting money from the gym owner. All her sisters had gone to school and finished their education. Munni had kept working selflessly. She had never complained or demanded anything for herself.
But now that she was freed, she didn’t know where to go, or what to do with her life. She felt like a prisoner who had been released from jail after a long sentence. The emotions of fear, anxiety, excitement, and expectation were all mixed together. Freedom was thrilling, but once she was out, Munni felt like there was a sign above her head telling her she was a former prisoner. She didn’t know where she would live, whether she’d find a job, or how she would get around from place to place. She hadn’t even finished her school.
At this moment of extreme stress, a superpower popped up, one which Munni never knew had existed. She might have continued to lead a normal existence, doomed to be—at best—a woman slaving away her life.
However, life gave Munni a second chance and she decided to resurrect her life, and turn the table to prove herself. Munni started making plans to have her own business one day—connected to that powerful structure, that “gymkhana”.
While the men’s side of the gym kept flourishing and growing, sadly some men also became more and more disrespectful to the women members of the club. Men started thinking of the women’s gym club as a prostitute center. The club’s women didn’t like that, but they had no choice. In the whole village, there was no other place where these women could go and exercise.
“Sir, you have to do something for the female folks of the gym,” Munni said with conviction to the gym’s owner.
“I know Munni, but I am on a budget right now. Even if I think of something, I am stuck with multiple family obligations.”
“But solving this problem might help you financially too. You’ll get more female members in your club. Don’t you wish to hear the idea I have brought you?”
“No Munni, there are already so few female members. I don’t want to put myself on a pedestal and experiment here.” He shook his head, his eyebrows floating up. “Even if all the women left the club, the business would still not be impacted much, but I can’t lose a single male from the club.”
Munni found an opportunity from the whole situation. She already had the entrepreneurial know-how and creativity that could percolate both women’s feelings and the gym business.
If I believe that I can be successful, I have to seize that opportunity now.
With her history of incorporating new ideas and her experience, spawning a new gym business did not seem a far-fetched idea to her. It was a perfect place to launch her business scheme now. Right next to the existing ‘gymkhana’, there was a building for rent. Munni had enough savings from the tips she had always received from the owner and members of the club. She also borrowed some money from her friends to rent that building for a few months.
She did not look back. The community and neighborhood were already full of unprivileged women. From her own experience with these women, Munni had learnt that the seeds for the support of women’s rights had been planted. Her good hearted friends became well-known women’s rights advocates.
Munni started a new gym club, just for women, after renting the building. She was the first woman to start a business.
In spite of Munni’s good intentions, a smaller group of determined social workers with lofty ideas came forward to dismiss Munni’s women’s gym club. They pointed out several bad influences and social consequences that it would have on the community. Religious groups played an important role too. Therefore, Munni’s triumph did not last very long. A case was filed against her gym club with allegations of wrongdoing inside the club, and that it had a bad influence on the society.
The court order was to immediately shut down Munni’s gym without further notice. Her concept was unilaterally rejected. She was caught in a whirlpool—drowning and suffocating.
She opened her mouth to scream—her lips parted but no words came out.
But determined Munni astutely turned to her own will powers. She realized that to achieve her goal of becoming a legitimate business owner, she needed help from women of educated and rich families. As a servant girl, she had observed the power of money, influence, and the art of networking.
A strong supporter of Munni, Faija Sultana, was mesmerized by Munni’s self confidence, her vision to change women’s lives as workers, and her passion for transforming her own life. Faija was a well-known women rights lawyer.
With Faija’s support, more determined than ever, Munni realized her business had to work. Every decision was critical, especially in light of the social mores at that time.
The mainstream perception was that most women did not belong in business, where they might learn self-reliance and engage in an impure world of money. It was better that they should devote themselves to family and religious concerns. Women were discouraged from such dreams like Munni’s.
Munni had a different style and a far different long-term goal, because she wanted to succeed and that was hard enough for a woman. She had no inclination for flamboyance.
Munni’s lawyer, Faija, understood the society’s sensitivity and Munni’s interest in business. She made a compelling case on Munni’s behalf, and society yielded; Munni could rent the space again!
There was a condition though.
“Munni Tirkey, you are allowed to continue the business only on a month-to-month basis. If your gym proves to be attracting the wrong kind of women and business, you will have to evict the premises within ten short days.” The court rendered the judgement with that contingency.
Regardless of this vulnerability, Munni believed she had won. She opened her business in the most desirable location of the community, and started her business of a gym club for women.
Such effort seemed like an almost legendary proportion to Munni. To her the community was full of visionary women. No one woman determined Munni’s character or entrepreneurial complexion. Munni was heartened to learn how the women community of the village had gotten together to help her.
Ultimately, she shared both her name and her ideals of equality with the area. Munni believed that she was relevant and shared her philosophy that women did not need men to define them or make them whole. She had believed all along that she wouldn’t fail in her second chance. She had to succeed in the future. Munni was making her own future.
Among such beliefs, Munni no longer had to hide her values. Her harsh childhood, her abandonment, her socio-economic class existence, and her poverty, surely left emotional scars and unmet needs, along with imposed feelings of inadequacy. Shee indeed had an abusive childhood that was real, but in God’s eye it hardly mattered.
The material world that bound her to a doomed destiny was a false god and one that she could reject; there was a spiritual sphere of love, affection and support awaiting her, and Munni was ready for both.
Munni’s determination suggested to the society that when women jump into a business opportunity, or are determined to do something, such pursuit was the result of necessity.
After a month, Munni opened her eyes and the gym was still standing there, functioning to its full potential.
Note: Even though debt bondage in India was legally abolished in 1976, it still remains prevalent due to weak enforcement by the government.
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