Her outward appearance can be deceiving. Dressed in a kurta and cotton pants, with a lathi in her hands, 60-year-old Kamla could pass off as a sturdy man. A resident of Meerapur Dalpat area in Muzaffarnagar district of Uttar Pradesh, she has been dressing like a man for over two decades. And that has become her identity now.
“Harsh life lessons have compelled me to change my appearance and live like a man,” said Kamla. Even as she says the whole world is her family, her voice resonates loneliness. Kamla was orphaned at a young age. Her life took a turn for the worse after her husband's death. Her in-laws asked her to leave the house, rendering her helpless. Kamla's only daughter was not allowed to leave and grew up at her husband's home. Kamla's brother had died of cancer, leaving behind two children whose responsiblity fell upon her.
She decided to take the bull by the horns and fend for herself and the kids. A few land holdings were all that she possessed. She turned to agriculture for livelihood. In the male dominated society of western UP, it was extremely difficult for a woman to work in the fields along with men. With the rising crime in the area, watering the fields at night became a challenging and risky task.
“Finding no way out I decided to dress and behave like men,” said Kamla. Having to part with the long tresses hurt the most. “The changes in my attire and looks altered my outward appearance and made me look like a man. It was a big relief and I started working in the fields,” She told THE WEEK.
Struggle for existence had forced her to discontinue schooling after class VIII. An interesting incident, however, later led Kamla to join a village school for primary education. One day she unknowingly threw out some important papers which belonged to her nephew. When he found the papers were missing, he broke out into tears. Kamla realised had she been educated, the incident could have been evaded. That is what motivated her to continue schooling.
She toiled to provide for her nephews. The more she tried to compose herself, life had other plans. Her daughter's suicide broke her. But she has picked up the pieces and moved own. Her nephews, now farmers, do not stay with her now.
Kamla lives alone in a dilapidated house in her village. She hopes the government will help her get a small house from where she could run some small business.
Beena Sharma, a social worker who met Kamla at a village function a few years back, has been in constant touch with her. “Though Kamla suffered a lot in life, she has not given up . Whenever free she speaks to the women of the village about their rights and responsibilities—a kind of social work which she does silently. Kamla’s thrust remains that women should fight for their rights,” said Sharma.