“Dekho gehu katai ho gayi aur yeh gehu bhari gadiya ab chakki ko ja rahi hei ” (Look the wheat harvesting is over and these vehicles loaded with the grain are now going to the mill)”, my driver, Kailash Singh, says cheerfully. He is driving me from Vrindavan, about 10 km from Mathura, the birthplace of Lord Krishna, to Delhi.

My mind rewinds 24 hours to little Aarti, barely eight years, who had reported over an hour late to her school. Madhuri Singh, Principal of the Government Primary School for Girls in Chaumuha, about 12 km from Vrindavan in Uttar Pradesh, says, a little too loudly, for the child's comfort. “There you are. You were missing for so many days! Where were you?”

Raising her tired, though freshly scrubbed face, the little girl says, “Madam, I had gone to the field for gehu katai ”.

“Not gehu katai ” Asha Sharma, the Principal of the adjoining middle-school — Kanyapur Madhmik Vidyala — located on the national highway, butts in. “Surely you didn't go to the field; you were at the house.”

Chatting with me, half an hour earlier as I talked to the girls of Class VIII in her school, she had said that the daily attendance in her school, with 154 girls, normally averaged between 115-125 girls a day. “But today, the guardians took away many girls, with our permission of course, because wheat is being harvested. I had no option but to send them for a couple of hours. If I refuse to give permission, they will be missing for the school for the entire day.”

Ms Sharma adds that the girls themselves don't go to the fields for harvesting wheat; “their mothers don't like to take teenager girls to the fields. They stay at home to look after the younger siblings and prepare the food, so that when the parents come back tired in the evening, their dinner is ready”. Well, that may be true of the older girls, but along with Aarti, a few of her classmates confirm that they all lend a hand in actually cutting the crop, using the scythe. And it's not as though this is a big deal for them.

They all smile as they tell me how they go to the field early in the morning and “give a hand to our parents. If all of us help, the work gets done so much faster”, says Soni, all of nine!

Many a dream

The girls, particularly those in the higher classes, the 14 and 15-year-olds, are quite enthusiastic about the opportunity to be in school.

Nine-year-old Durga of Class III, is a very serious student; “she is the brightest in the class and hardly takes her head out of her books,” says Madhuri Singh. Durga is rather shy about discussing her future dreams, but on being prodded by the teacher says quietly, “I want to become a police inspector when I grow up.”

For Sonam, 13, a student of Class VIII, it is a 15 minute walk to school, but she loves to take that walk.

There are several reasons for this, not the least being the hot, tasty and wholesome meal of khichadi , vegetable pulao, rotis, dhal and rice, prepared and sent to her school by the mammoth kitchen of the Akshaya Patra Foundation in Vrindavan, that awaits her at school on that day.

This kitchen prepares a whopping 1.69 lakh meals a day to serve the children of about 1,500 schools in the region.

So what would she like to become? Her confidence in answering questions about her father working as a cleaner in a nearby college, her mother working in the field, and so on, takes a back seat. She is quiet for a minute before saying: “I want to become a wrestler.”

With a cruelty that comes so easily at this tender age, the rest of the class bursts out laughing.

But instead of embarrassing her, the ridicule only boosts her confidence.

Turning a deep shade of red more in anger than shame, she says resolutely: “Let them laugh as much as they want; I will do what I want.” The young girl is not interested in seeing too many films, but not surprisingly, her favourite film is Jhansi ki Rani .

Picking up courage from Sonam, Babita volunteers: “I want to become an inspector.”

Interestingly enough, not a single person in the classroom wants to become a politician… “ Hamey woh achchey nahi lagtey ”, says Sonam turning up her little nose.

Day begins early…

Without exception, all the girls in her class, as in other classes, have come to school at 7 a.m. — the school hours have been advanced with the onset of summer; they get their lunch at 10 a.m. and are sent home by noon — after putting in a good 45-60 minutes work at home… cleaning the house, cutting vegetables, bathing their younger siblings, and even making rotis , as “amma has gone to the field for gehu katai .” They are interested in learning English, have begun studying it from Class VII, but don't have the confidence to converse in English.

To the question if these girls will be allowed to go to Higher Secondary School and then to college, the Principal says: “We counsel all parents and from our school all girls go to Std IX.”

But Bhagwati, a 14-year-old from Class VII, shakes her head and speaks up. “Yes, we would like to study more, but I am sure my parents will not allow me to go even to Class VIII. They did the same to my sister Durga, who was so good at her studies.” The sorrow in her eyes will haunt me for a long time, as well as my helplessness to do anything about it.

But, then, what about the millions of girls who have not been allowed to be born in India between the last census and this one? The 2011 Census tells us that the sex ratio in the 0-6 age group has come down further from 927 girls to 1,000 boys in 1991 to 914 in 2011.

From gehu katai in the fields, tending younger siblings, helping the mother in household chores to eagerly absorbing whatever knowledge their teachers and books give them... were these girls asking for the moon?

But, then, of course, female foeticide and our missing girls are not the peculiar phenomenon of poor and rural India. Urban and richer India, statistics tell us, hates the girl child even more.

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