On the day my SSC [secondary school certificate] results were to come, my condition was like that of a cricket ball after it is hit. Will it be a four [runs] or a six? Everyone watches just that ball. What if I failed? My father would have got me married immediately.

The results were announced on July 29, 2020. I had scored 79.06 per cent; I missed the third highest rank in my school by just one point. In our Nathjogi nomadic community no girl has ever passed Class 10! Three other girls from my community also cleared the exam this year.

I live in Nav Kh [Jalgaon Jamod tehsil, Buldana district], a small village with only people from my community. Most people here travel to Pune, Mumbai and Nagpur to work as beggars. The rest, like my parents, work as wage labourers around our village. 

My parents – Bhaulal Sahebrao Solanke, 45 and Draupada Solanke, 36 – do wage work on fields of wheat, jowar, corn, soybean and cotton. For a day’s work of around eight hours they earn 200 rupees each. They rarely get work for more than 10-12 days in a month as there are many people looking for jobs and not enough work. 

My father attended school till Class 5 and then dropped out to start working. I have two older sisters – Rukma, 24, never went to school and Nina, 22, studied till Class 5. Both my sisters are married now and have been working as daily wage labourers since they left school. My older brother Devlal, 20, is also a wage labourer. He dropped out of school in Class 9. 

When I turned 10, my father said, “You can start work now; you don’t need to study anymore.” He is not the only one. I pass an elderly lady every day on the way to school. She also scolded me: “Your sisters did not go to school, why do you need to? Do you think you will get a job if you study?’’  
Even my uncle would often tell my parents that they should get me married, and my father would join in. I would tell my mother, “Tell baba (father) not to discuss marriage with me or anyone else. I want to study.” 

Later, when I passed Class 10 and a journalist came to interview me, my father was crying. He told the man, “I’m glad my daughter didn’t listen to me and went ahead with her education.” 

‘Why do you need to study’

I started school when I was seven years old. Two teachers from the school in neighbouring Palshi Supo had come to my village to take the names of all the school-going girls. Someone gave my name to them, and so I joined Class 1 in the government primary school there. 

A year later a primary school started in my village and I shifted to it. In Class 5, I moved to the Mahatma Phule Nagar Parishad Vidyalaya in Jalgaon Jamod, the tehsil headquarters 14 kilometres away. To reach school, I would walk two kilometres, then take a shared auto which would drop me to the town bus stand and then walk another kilometre to reach school. The auto ride would take almost half an hour and cost thirty rupees one way. Six girls from my village went to the same school and we always travelled together.

One day, during the monsoon, the water level in the stream near our village had risen. We have to cross it to reach the main road. We usually manage to cross with only our lower legs getting wet, lifting our pyjamas and holding our chappals in our hands. However, that day, the water would have been up to our waist. I asked a man from our village who was standing on the banks, “Kaka, help us cross the river.” He shouted, “Just go back home, all of you! Why do you want to go to school? There are floods and you want to study? Girls should sit at home, why do you need to study?” We missed school that day. The next day, in class, our teacher, who felt we were all lying, made us stand outside the classroom as punishment. 

When it happened again I made my mother call and speak to him. Then he believed us. Later, the teacher visited our village and saw what we had described. 

Travelling by auto is expensive. When I was in Class 9 I decided to submit an application to the state transport office at Jalgaon Jamod bus stand, requesting them to send the bus to my village by 9 a.m. The Manav Vikas bus is meant only for girls and the ride is free but it would arrive in the village only by 11:30 a.m. and we would be late for school if we took it. 

The application was  signed by all 16 girls who use the bus, including two girls who live in the village of Islampur, four kilometres away.

The officer agreed and promised us that the bus would be there at 9 a.m. the next day. It really did arrive and I was so happy! But it only lasted a day. When the bus did not come the next day, I went back to the officer and he told me, “The bus comes from another village and people there do not want the time changed. I can’t send a bus which only suits you.” He suggested we change our class timings, but how is that possible? 

There are other problems too when we travel by bus. Once my friends and I boarded a state transport bus and a boy pulled my friend’s dupatta and shouted, “You girls from Mohidipur, get out!” Other boys joined him and there was a big fight. Mohidipur is where our Nathjogi community lives. Those boys did not want Nathjogi girls on the bus. I got angry and once the bus reached Jalgaon Jamod, I took him to the state transport office. The conductor had intervened and told those boys that the bus is for everybody, but such things keep happening, so we prefer autos.  

Left: Jamuna would cook and join her parents to work in the fields; Right: They cannot avail state funds to live in a pucca house. Photo by Anjali Sukhlal Shinde

In government schools, till Class 8 books are provided free by the school and there is no uniform. But from Class 9, one must buy textbooks and notebooks, costing about 1,000 rupees, and school uniforms that cost 550 rupees each. I had only enough money to buy one school uniform. Private tuition for one term costs another 3,000 rupees. I could only afford it for a term, and for the next term I requested my school teacher to help me out with my studies.

To fund these expenses, the summer before I was to go into Class 9, I started working in the fields with my parents. I used to get up at 4 a.m. and study for an hour. My parents and brother would leave for work around that time. After studying for an hour, I would cook bhakri [flat bread] and bhaaji [a vegetable curry] and carry it to them in the fields. 

I would join them and work from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. and I was paid 25 rupees an hour. At 9:30 a.m., I would head back home and get ready for school. After returning from school, I would head out again for wage work. I worked during the holidays as well. 

‘I like to win’
Last year [2019], I won a trophy in the block level essay writing competition organised by the Jal Shakti Abhiyan [union ministry for water resources]. I also bagged the second prize for my project on organic manure at the district level science exhibition in Buldana. I won the second spot in a running race in my school. I like to win. Girls from our Nathjogi community never get a chance to win.

Jamuna with her primary school teacher – Bhaulal Babar – who encouraged her to continue her education. Photo by Anjali Sukhlal Shinde

In August, I got admission in The New Era High School in Jalgaon Jamod town for Class 11 and 12. It is a private school and the annual fees are five thousand rupees. I have chosen the science stream – mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology and I added history because I was told that history would  help me prepare for the  civil service entrance exams. The person who encouraged me to continue my studies is my primary school teacher – Shri Bhaulal Babar who is from my village and my community. I am 18 years old now, and my dream is to get into the Indian Administrative Service. 

For graduation, I will have to move to Pune or Buldana town where there are universities. People say I should become a bus conductor or an anganwadi worker because I will get a job quickly. But I will become what I want to become. 

I want to study and become a big officer one day. Then poor people like us will not have to give bribes to get things done. When I was 15, my father was trying to transfer the land on which our house stands, to his name. It is in my paternal grandfather’s name, and he had gifted it to my father. But the man from our village who could do it was asking for 5,000 rupees to organise the transfer. My father does not have that kind of money. We pleaded with the man many times, but he wouldn’t do it without the money. If the house is not in our name, we are not eligible to get state funds to make it a pucca house.

No one should have to face such problems. I want to explain to my community what their rights are and make them not fear powerful people. I also want to change my community’s dependence on begging and their insistence on early marriage for girls. Begging is not the only occupation to feed oneself; education can also feed you.

Due to the lockdown, people have come back to the village and everyone’s looking for wage work. My family is at home and we are not getting any work now. My father has borrowed money from an elder in the village for my school admission. Paying back is going to be very difficult. We are willing to do any work, but we will never beg for alms.

Prashant Khunte is an independent Marathi journalist based in Pune, and he helped with this story.