The theme for this year’s International Women’s day is #BreakTheBias highlighting the individual and societal biases against women. These biases lead to deeper gender inequality in society. For years, women in different parts of the world have struggled and are still struggling to be heard.
This is a short story for women’s day 2022, that I have penned. Sometimes, all one needs to do in order to break free, is take the first step. It may seem scary and may not be easy, but then is it easy to live a caged life?
The Sky is The Limit is my tribute to all the brave girls and women who have taken the first step, uttered a word in protest, raised their voice to be heard, done anything to #BreakTheBias
When Shalu was born her father cried. They didn’t want a girl again. Her mother looked at her two other girls sadly and handed over the new baby to them. She didn’t have the time to recover from childbirth and had to return to work at once.
Shalu’s parents worked at a bird sanctuary. Cleaning, feeding the birds, cooking, caring for sick or injured birds, was a lot of work but the money was not enough for their growing family.
Shalu’s father had this strange feeling that their life would get better the moment they would be blessed with a son. The family unquestioningly repeated this prayer every night before bed. ‘Bless our home with a boy.’
Shalu’s sisters handled the work at home and looked after her. Pretty soon, she too started sharing responsibilities. She loved helping out at the sanctuary.
She was often found enjoying the company of the birds. One day, as she was staring at a chattering group of birds, she turned to her mother and said, ‘I love the stories these birds exchange. Some talk about a new fruit they’ve tried while others discuss new places for food. But, you know ma, which stories I love the most,’ she continued without waiting for her mother to ask, ‘the ones where they talk about distant lands. Did you know some of these birds have travelled more than a thousand miles to be here?’
Shalu’s mother nodded and was about to say something when her father rudely barged into the conversation. ‘What is this nonsense you are talking about? Birds can’t talk. Stop feeding your head with stupid things.’ He scolded
A tear escaped Shalu’s eyes as she gazed at her mother sadly. ‘I swear, they talk ma. I can understand them. I promise.’
Time went by, and, at last, happiness came into their lives – or so they believed! They were blessed with a boy. Shalu saw her father laugh for the very first time. Deep down, she felt a pang of jealousy. What was so special about this baby that made her father so happy?
At times, Shalu felt angry at her brother. Things were clearly unfair. Sometimes she got the urge to hurt him but how could she? Each time he wrapped his tiny fingers around her hand, her heart melted. How could she be angry with him when he generously gifted her with hugs, kisses, and love?
It was time for her little brother to go to school. Shalu was livid, she and her sisters were never given this opportunity. They looked at his new bag and books with awe. She touched and smelt the pages of the books. She longed to find out what was written in them. So, she struck a deal with him. He would go to school, learn how to read and write and come back home and teach her. He agreed.
In the meantime, her sisters got married. Their weddings drilled a huge hole in the family’s savings. Soon there wasn’t enough money to even manage the daily meals. Everyone’s portions were reduced, except her brother’s. He still got his two rotis while the others ate only onions and pickle. It’s a different thing that he always saved a roti for her that they shared later at night.
Soon, Shalu’s mother had to take up more work. She began working as a domestic helper in three homes apart from her work at the sanctuary. The workload took a toll on her health and she fell terribly ill. The family was now scrounging for food and money. Shalu was asked to fill in for her mother.
‘I will work at the sanctuary but I won’t work at anyone’s home. Please ma, please.’
But, the choice wasn’t hers.
A few days later when her mother recovered, Shalu thought she would resume her duties at the three homes. They didn’t want her. They were happier with a younger and swifter helper. They wanted Shalu to continue.
One night, as her mother was clearing up the dishes, Shalu went over to her. Careful not to speak too loudly, she whispered, ‘The birds have asked me to fly with them. They have been asking me every year but I was too scared to go. They say, the clouds show them the way, the moon sings to them and the wind carries them when their wings get too tired. And, when everything seems dark the sun shows them the light.’
Shalu’s mother looked at her daughter sadly. She never had much to say, but, tonight, she said, ‘I know.’
Shalu smiled. That night, she hugged her brother really tight.
She woke up just before sunrise and went to her mother’s bedside. She gently stroked her mother’s cheek. Her mother was awake but she didn’t open her eyes. Although she pined to hold her baby in her arms and tell her how much she loved her. She didn’t. She kept her tired eyes tightly shut.
She didn’t even open them when she heard Shalu’s light footsteps as she disappeared into the dark.
Shalu’s mother finally woke up at daybreak. As she stepped out and the sun pierced her eyes, she looked up and spotted a flock of birds flying towards the sun. She smiled and said, ‘Fly high my baby. Fly free. The sky’s the limit.’