Mishi Yadav

"I do not want more children,
but if God wishes,
what can I do?"

Photographs and Interviews by SARAH LEEN

MISHAI YADAV SPENDS MOST OF HER life within the walled courtyard of her family's home in Ahraura village, in the northeastern state of Uttar Pradesh. (Yadav, a caste name, refers to the caste's historic role as cowherds.) As do many Hindu women in this Muslim-influenced region, Mishri, 27, practices the Islamic custom of purdah - living in seclusion, away from prying eyes. When male visitors enter her home, she shields her face with her sari.

In her enclosed world, Mishri tends to the needs of her extended family her husband, Bachau; their five children; and Bachau's father and cousin, who live with them. The work keeps her busy from sunup to sundown, except for a brief rest during the hottest part of the day when friends might visit to talk and decorate their hands and feet (right). Her oldest daughter, Sunita ("Guddi"), 9, is her biggest help with the household chores. In the courtyard is a waterpump where Mishri bathes herself and the children, draws drinking and cooking water, and scrubs the family clothing. Bachau, 32, spends his time working his small field and making wooden toys for sale - a job he dislikes but needs to feed the family The three oldest children go to school near their home. Classes are held outside because the school building is too small. Mishri, who never attended school, cannot read; living in a world without clocks or calendars, she doesn't know her own birthday or those of her children.

Conversation with Mishri Yadav

Note: Unlike most other women in this book, Mishri Yadav was interviewed in the presence of her husband, who attempted to answer questions for her.

Family and Nation

Population: 9306 million
Population Density: 733.0 per sq mile
: 26/74
Rank of Affluence among UN Members: 157 Out of 185

Mishri Yadav
Age: 27
Age at Marriage: 10 (began living with Bacbau at age l5)
Distance living from birthplace: 20 km
Children: 6 (but first baby died)
Number of children desired: "I do not want more children, but if God wishes, what can I do?"
Contraception used: None. Would use if available.
Occupation: Homemaker
Religion: Hinduism
Education: None
Literate: No Bachau is literate
Favorite task: Combing hair
Least favorite task: Going to the market
Food source: Marketplace and family's field
Number of saris Mishri owns: 2
Electricity: Yes, but not used often
Cost of electricity per month: 30 rupees [US $1]
Biggest life event: Having her children
What Bachau says is Mishri's proudest accomplishment: "She has had kids, and she has the strength to fight with me."

Mishri Yadav: My father was a farmer, and my mother helped in the field and was a housewife. I had four sisters and four brothers. I was the eldest child.

Sarah Leen: Was your mother's life different from yours?
It is the same.

At what age were you betrothed?
Ten, My uncles found my husband for me.

Did you marry for love?

Is there love in your relationship now?
Certainly. A lot of it.

You were betrothed at ten. When did you actually meet your husband?
I met him [five years later at the wedding] when I came to move in, to stay in his house.

What was your wedding like?
I put color on my hands - not henna but red dye. When the pandit [village priest] came, they called me outside. I was asked to sit in front of my husband. They said all the prayers and then my brother put rice in my hands and into the fire [Hindu custom that symbolizes life and prosperity - Ed]. There was eating - they fed all the men. And then my husband and I went and saw a nice movie.

Was there a dowry?
Yes. My father gave him 500 rupees [US $17 at current rate], a bicycle, a watch, and other things.

Did you ever consider not getting married?
No, I always wanted to get married. I like being married to my husband. It is a very good life.

What do you expect from each other?
I want my husband to earn money so that we can have a nice big house and everything inside the house. That would be nice.

Would you say you are of equal standing with your husband in your home?
My husband is higher.

Who makes the big decisions?
We both make decisions.

Would it be okay for your daughter, Guddi, to remain unmarried?
It won't happen. I want her to marry.

How old do you expect your daughter, Guddi, to be when she marries?
I want her to be ten years old.

Is it an option for her not to have children?
I want my daughter to have children.

What if she were unable to?
It is understood as a bad thing. The women who are unable to give birth are considered - we call it banjh [barren]. She would be considered bad for the village and maybe would be expelled.

Her face partially concealed by her sari, Mishri (above) makes one of her relatively infrequent trips outside the home to take Guddu for his shots at the well-baby clinic. Like many Indian women, Mishri is Hindu but has adopted the Islamic custom of purdah, in which women keep themselves apart from male gazes and male company. As she waits in line for the innoculations, the baby restlessly squirms in her lap.

Will your children live with you when they are grown?
If my sons live other places, then we will be alone. If not, we will be together. My daughters will have gone to live with their in-laws by that time.

Sarah: Mishri, how do you spend your day?
Mishri: I do all the housework. I massage the baby, clean the dishes and the house, and put everything in order, and I cook.

What takes up most of your tine?
Making food.

What takes the least time?
Sweeping the house.

Do you have a favorite activity?
Combing my hair.

How do you and your husband spend time together?
If we get the chance, we sit and talk together. We don't have much time to do this.

What about the family as a whole? How much time do you all spend together?
About two hours a day. My husband goes out to work, and that takes time.

Do you have much tine to yourself?
About two hours a day between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. This time is for sleeping, for going out [to visit friends], and for putting color on my hands.

Is there anything you like to do that you wish you could do more often?
We could go to watch a movie.

Is there anything that you would like to do that you don't do now?
I would like to sleep more.

Are you satisfied with your life?
I feel happy if the farming goes well.

Sarah: Do you own your house?
Mishri: Yes, we own it. We bought the land to build the house. My husband carried the soil on his shoulders and I smoothed the walls with my hands.

What are your monthly household expenses for food, doting, and household goods now?
How am I supposed to know? I have never been to school.

Women in India

In a country once led by Indira Gandhi, the first woman head of state in modern Asian history, the majority of women still marry early, bear many children, and obtain little, if any schooling. The few who become doctors or engineers are mostly urban and upper-caste. Most of India's 450 million women live in the countryside, where they rarely own land and have little economic power.

Women face intense pressure to bear sons, and daughters are sometimes neglected. Some experts say this explains India's skewed sex ratio: Just 94 women for every 100 men. But Indian culture focuses more on families than individuals, so women's role as mothers gives them status. Women of high caste are often secluded in their homes, while lower-caste women may be servants or field-workers and surprisingly, have more freedom of movement.

Access to education is increasing for both men and women, and as men gain more education they often demand educated wives – an incentive for parents to send their daughters to school. One negative result is the new phenomenon of "dowry deaths" – murders of brides when the husband's kin don't receive the high payments they've demanded.

Thousands of women helped push for Indian independence starting in the 1920s, and in recent years, scores of women's groups have sprung up, working to protect die environment, increase women's access to credit, and prevent violence against women. Despite some small-scale changes, many Indian women live much like their grandmothers did.

Do you know what you pay for fuel?
It is 30 rupees [US $1] a month for electricity. We buy firewood, but I don't know how much it costs. The dung [for fuel] I have to buy, too.

Do you have any money to spend on yourself personally?
About 25 rupees [US $0.85] a month.

What do you spend it on?
Bindis [small round red marks traditionally used to indicate that a woman is married] and sindur. But most of the money goes into buying coconut oil, which is 20 or 30 rupees [US $0.65-$1] for 230 grams [8 oz.]. [The family uses the oil on their skin.-Ed]

Is there anything you would like to own that would make your life better?
It would be good if there was a television.

In a traditional practice, Mishri massages the skin of 6-month-old Guddu (above) with coconut oil every day. The massage, she believes, is good for his health.

Would you like more children?
I don't want more children, but if God wishes, what can I do?

Did you see a doctor when you were pregnant?
I went to a doctor about my [last] pregnancy when it was two or three months before the baby was due. But I had all of my children at home, not in the hospital. The village midwife helps me. In the room there's me, my mother, and a woman to cut the umbilical cord. There are also village women in the house. My husband takes a walk outside.

Where were the other children when your youngest, Guddu, was born?
My other children stayed at my mother's house. The barber's wife [came and] put oil on the baby's bead and on me. And the next-door neighbors made food and tea and gave it to all of the friends who came over.

Do you have women friends?
Only women friends-Taka and Urmilla. We talk about our children, about the market. We talk about where to find fodder and firewood and bow to do things in the house. We meet every day. We sit in my courtyard or at the door. I go to their house or they come to my house. We sit together and sew clean rice, and make hand fans.

Are your friends important to you?
They are important. They make me feel good.

Bachau, what would you like your children to become when they grow older?
Bachau Yadav (husband):
I have three sons I want one son to become a doctor, one to go into the army and the third son should stay at home and take care of the house. I want one daughter to become a nurse, and the other one should be a good housewife. I want all my children to be educated, to study; and also, the girls have to learn how to maintain the house, They should learn how to cook and clean utensils and all that.

Whose responsibility is it to take care of your children?
Bachau: My wife's, but in the morning and evening when my wife is cooking food, I take care of the children.

Do you share any household duties with her?
Once in a while I cook if she needs that help. If she's not well, I massage her head.

What is the role of women? What kind of things should they do?
Bachau: Women should work in the field. They should take care of the house, they should take care of the kids, and they should take care of their husbands.

What is the role of men?
Bachau: I'm the guardian of the house.

What was the last major decision you made?
: The decisions I have made in my life were to get married, to make a house with my own hands, and to buy land. What my wife [wanted to do] has not yet been done. What she wants is to learn how to have a well-run household.

Who makes the decisions about how money is spent?
Bachau: I do.

Do people in your village give equal standing to you and your wife?
: In the village, men have higher standing.

How about at home? Is your wife of equal standing with you there?
Bachau: At home I give her equal standing, because who is there to see?

Field Journal

Every morning begins with – mist? dung-fire haze? whatever it is – hanging soft and chill in the air. It's quiet; the din and bustle, the press of people and vehicles arid animals has not yet begun. A wonderful time of day, a needed break from being so nose-to-nose with life in India.

Mishri lives in a world bounded by the walls of the courtyard behind her house. Almost every activity takes place in this secluded outdoor space. When she ventures outside, she uses the gate set into the courtyard wall – I never saw her use the front door. To keep her public exposure to a minimum, Bachau sweeps the packed ground in front of the house. For her part, she won't speak Bachau's name, at least to me. When I asked her how to pronounce it. she got a neighbor in a bright yellow sari to say it for her.

I was struck by Guddi's ability to carry so much responsibility with so little protest. At 9 – almost the age when her mother married her father – Guddi takes care of her baby brother, cooks and washes the dishes – completely her mother's right hand. There is not a spoiled bone in her body. I'd make any kind of fool of myself to win one of her smiles.

Both Mishri and Bachau have moments of vanity. When I take Bachau's portrait, he borrows Western-style clothes from neighbors, dons my sunglasses, and proudly shows himself to the camera in some self-inspired version of mod and macho, successful and sleek. Mishri loves her two delicate, airy saris, one of which she washes every day, changing and bathing in full view of the strangers who have invaded the courtyard. After I tell the family I would like to get them something as thanks for their hospitality, Mishri gets me alone and indicates what would please her. To my surprise, it's jewelry, make-up, a new sari, dye for her feet. Not something to make her life better, but beauty products and new clothes. After all, I reflect, she is only 27.