Ashweetha Shetty – TED Talk TRANSCRIPT
I was eight years old. I remember that day clearly like it happened just yesterday.
My mother is a bidi roller. She hand-rolls country cigarettes to sustain our family. She is a hard worker and spent 10 to 12 hours every day rolling bidis.
That particular day she came home and showed me her bidi-rolling wage book. She asked me how much money she has earned that week. I went through that book, and what caught my eyes were her thumbprints on each page.
My mother has never been to school. She uses her thumbprints instead of a signature to keep a record of her earnings. On that day, for some reason, I wanted to teach her how to hold a pen and write her name.
She was reluctant at first. She smiled innocently and said no. But deep down, I was sure she wanted to give it a try. With a little bit of perseverance and a lot of effort, we managed to write her name. Her hands were trembling, and her face was beaming with pride.
As I watched her do this, for the first time in my life, I had a priceless feeling: that I could be of some use to this world. That feeling was very special, because I am not meant to be useful.
In rural India, girls are generally considered worthless. They’re a liability or a burden. If they are considered useful, it is only to cook dishes, keep the house clean or raise children.
As a second daughter of my conservative Indian family, I was fairly clear from a very early age that no one expected anything from me. I was conditioned to believe that the three identities that defined me — poor village girl — meant that I was to live a life of no voice and no choice.
These three identities forced me to think that I should never have been born. Yet, I was.
All throughout my childhood, as I rolled bidis alongside my mother, I would wonder: What did my future hold? I often asked my mother, with a lot of anxiety, “Amma, will my life be different from yours? Will I have a chance to choose my life? Will I go to college?”
And she would reply back, “Try to finish high school first.”
I am sure my mother did not mean to discourage me. She only wanted me to understand that my dreams might be too big for a girl in my village.
When I was 13, I found the autobiography of Helen Keller. Helen became my inspiration. I admired her indomitable spirit. I wanted to have a college degree like her. So I fought with my father and my relatives to be sent to college, and it worked.
During my final year of my undergraduate degree, I desperately wanted to escape from being forced into marriage. So I applied to a fellowship program in Delhi, which is about 1,600 miles away from my village.
In fact, I recall that the only way I could fill out the application was during my commute to college. I did not have access to computers, so I had to borrow a college junior’s cell phone.
As a woman, I could not be seen with a cell phone. So I used to huddle his phone under my shawl and type as slowly as possible to ensure that I would not be heard.
After many rounds of interviews, I got into the fellowship program with a full scholarship. My father was confused, my mother was worried…
My father was confused, my mother was worried, but I felt butterflies in my stomach because I was going to step out of my village for the first time to study in the national capital.
Of the 97 fellows selected that year, I was the only rural college graduate. There was no one there who looked like me or spoke like me. I felt alienated, intimidated and judged by many.
One fellow called me “Coconut Girl.” Can you guess why? Anyone? That’s because I applied a lot of coconut oil to my hair.
Another asked me where I had learned to speak English, and some of my peers did not prefer to have me on their assignment teams because they thought I would not be able to contribute to their discussion.
I felt that many of my peers believed that a person from rural India could not supply anything of value, yet the majority of Indian population today is rural.
I realized that stories like mine were considered to be an exception and never the expectation. I believe that all of us are born into a reality that we blindly accept until something awakens us and a new world opens up.
When I saw my mother’s first signature on her bidi-rolling wage book, when I felt the hot Delhi air against my face after a 50-hour train journey. When I finally felt free and let myself be, I saw a glimpse of that new world I longed for, a world where a girl like me is no longer a liability or a burden but a person of use, a person of value and a person of worthiness.
By the time my fellowship ended, my life had changed. Not only had I traced my lost voice, but also had a choice to make myself useful.