Gaytri Sharma is the only woman in her village in India who can drive a scooter, but that’s not what makes her remarkable.

Just under 5 feet tall, Gaytri pushes the boundaries of what’s expected. “I had a very strong desire to drive a scooter,” Gaytri says, “Whenever I was looking at boys, they were driving scooters, and I wanted to do it, but they said, ‘Only boys can do it.’ I thought, ‘Why is this? We are both human.’ So I learned, and when started driving, I felt so happy, confident, and powerful. Like an empowered woman. I felt independence. Totally independent. When I’m traveling in a bus or car, I’m just passing everything. I can’t enjoy the environment that I can enjoy with a scooter. Wherever I’m driving, I’m looking and saying, ‘Oh, wow! Look at this area. Look at this field. Look at this view. Wow!’ I can stop there, and get a chance to see different things– like rivers, fields, and mountains. I can also help people if there is an accident on the road. Wherever I want to go, I can go. Whatever I want to do, I can do.

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Gaytri’s Landscape

If you know anything about roads in rural India, you’ll probably wince to remember them. Or smile. Or both at the same time. The roads can be treacherous, but they also bring you through stunning landscapes. Through the inevitable roadblocks and potholes of life in rural India, Gaytri’s spirit of resilience, unwavering optimism, and determination to forge ahead have enabled her to break through stifling expectations and pave the way for others, as well.

gaytri_path

One of my first days working with Gaytri, I noticed her habit of clearing sticks and rocks off of her path wherever she walks. She never wants to trip or have anyone else stumble. Battling through hard labor, loss, violence, scorn, corruption, and misunderstanding, Gaytri has become a local leader, a respected agricultural expert, a social activist, a pioneer for girls’ education, and a role model for those around her.

Gaytri was born and raised in a small village called Rakkar, in the state of Himachal Pradesh in northwest India. “We call Himachal “God’s land,” Gaytri says. Himachal, as it is affectionately known, is rural and mountainous; the western Himalayas cut through the state. Rakkar looks up to the rocky, jagged face of the Dhauladhar Range, which remains slate-gray in the warmer months and grows a mighty beard of snow in the bitter winter.

“Whenever I’m very stressed out or very sad from anything, from life, at that time I’m just looking at the mountains and telling them, ‘I’m getting lots of courage from you, because you stay in one place. Whatever season is coming or going, any difficult situation, you are still there. And you never budge, you never move from your place. Even though people are hurting you a lot, like slate-mining, you never get upset over that kind of thing. We human beings are hurting you a lot, but you are still there.’ I got that kind of courage from the mountains. To be strong in your decisions, in your place, to be a strong person. In all situations, you are the same person. You are accepting all things and you are stable. I also want to be stable like you. Anything may happen in my life, but I don’t want to get disappointed and discouraged. That kind of thing I’m talking with mountains, and I get courage from them.”

Springtime in Rakkar and neighboring Dharamsala is like heaven. Tender green leaves begin to show and unfurl, birds sing earlier in the mornings, grumbling thunder and drapes of night rain bring forth lush greenery, then flowers start exploding: a blur of pink, orange, red, yellow, and white against the green, green fields. With the coming of spring comes the melting of glaciers high up in the mountains, and rivers sparkle and carve through the verdant countryside. Irrigation channels called kuhls direct smaller streams closer to villages and fields. Agriculture engages over 90% of Himachal’s population, and terraced fields of rice and wheat are common sights around villages and small towns.

gaytri_fields

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Childhood

The youngest of seven siblings, Gaytri grew up learning how to use her hands as tools. Working in the fields and doing chores at home shaped her work ethic from an early age. Little Gaytri loved school, even though she would later learn that the quality of government education was quite poor. Teachers at times don’t show up, often beat students, and bring lackluster energy to the job. “In school I was a good student…though a bit naughty,” Gaytri says, laughing. She is naughty in an endearing and mischievous way. With so many burdens in life, her lighted-heartedness and sense of humor buoys the spirits of those around her. “I don’t know if it is a gift that God has given me, some gift to make people laugh. I’m looking in people’s eyes, seeing how they are. I’m looking, and talking with them, and if he or she is sad or whatever, I start talking with them and try to make them laugh…and slowly that person will start to open up. They love to talk to me and laugh, and I like to heal people’s lives with love, compassion, and laughter.”

Life in rural Himachal requires great endurance and continuous toil to live off the land. Villages scattered throughout the countryside are dotted with homes made of river stones, mud, wood, bamboo, and slate-shingled roofs. Gaytri’s mother and father built their traditional home by hand. “In winter, it’s warm, and in summer, it’s cold. That is the speciality of that house,” Gaytri says. Families keep cattle, goats, water buffalos, and chickens, tend vegetable gardens, and depend on their own crops of rice and wheat for their subsistence. Typical meals include stacks of chapati still hot from the fire, used to scoop up cooked vegetables such as okra, peppers, eggplant, cauliflower, peas, or tomatoes. Gaytri has made thousands and thousands of chapatis in her life, starting at a young age. When she was little, Gaytri would walk 2.5 km every day to their water source, a small stream, to bring water for her family. “My father bought a 5 liter can…with that can I was filling water every day from there. It took about 10 ten times, back and forth…about two hours.” There were always more chores to do, as well. “All my family was in the field, and I was the youngest one, so I stayed at home. I had to prepare everything for the evening: filling the water, getting the sticks for fire, making vegetables. Sometimes cooking in my early childhood, in 3rd and 4th grade.”

gaytri_home

Her childhood days were structured by school, work, and religion. Gaytri’s father was a Hindu priest at the local temple. “My father very strongly believed in rituals and religion. We were seven siblings, so he started to teach us all religious things from our childhood. Every evening he was doing puja for two hours, and every morning for two hours.” Puja is daily worship that can involve making offerings, chanting prayers or mantras, and lighting candles and incense to honor God. “During the month of July, every day my father was offering 1,100 leaves of one type of tree…बेल (bael: a type of creeper). It is the favorite tree of Shiva. So he offered 1,100 leaves every day for a month. 30 days. Every night, we had to prepare those 1,100 leaves, very carefully. It was a big task for us to make those 1,100 leaves.” Gaytri took me to the place where he offered the leaves, a small, cool cave next to the river. Incense, pictures, and pink petals were carefully arranged in the sacred space. Gaytri’s day does not begin without stepping into her own sacred space and doing puja every morning. “I love to do puja because when I’m doing puja, it gives me lots of peace and calm. Whatever is the situation, I never refuse to do puja.” That inner core of calm, imperturbable as the depths of the ocean, has enabled Gaytri to weather many storms.

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Growing Up

As her older sisters married and left home for their in-laws’ houses, an increasing amount of work fell on Gaytri’s shoulders. Now she was carrying the load of every household task. After completing 10th grade in school, she wanted to continue on, but the family had little money. “I also had a lot of pressure from society not to go to school. They were saying, what will you do if you will do higher study? Look at that girl, who is a graduate– she is at her in-laws’ house, and she is doing all household stuff. And if you will do higher study, you will do the same thing. There is no need to go.” Gaytri chafed against some of the traditional, societal norms that attempted to confine her independent spirit. Society dictated that “girls should be shy, quiet, and submissive.” Gaytri explains, “I grew up in that society, so all these things were in my heart and soul. But there was something else inside, saying, ‘No, I have to do something, but I don’t know how to do it.’” From an early age, Gaytri questioned the pervasive culture of prioritizing the needs of boys over girls. Boys got the best food, hot from the fire, while the girls ate second, because boys needed their strength for work, while girls would just go to their in-law’s house one day. “Sometimes I felt very angry because of that. I was saying, ‘If they are human, girls also human. So how do you make a difference between us?’”

gaytri_goat

Her determination and independent mind led her to turn down marriage proposals, which started arriving at the age of 16. One early suitor came from a very wealthy family, boasting of a lavish house with enviable land and livestock. The family did not think Gaytri should work outside of the home, for there was so much to do. Gaytri refused. The potential mother-in-law came to call in a huff, saying, “Ok, you want to do this, but why? We have this many rooms, when will you sweep and mop? When will you cook? When will you clean clothes? When will you do cattle work? How will you do all these things and then go do your work?” Gaytri replied, “It’s fine that you have that much work. But tell me one thing, do you want a servant, or do you want a daughter-in-law?

The women buzzed away like an angry hornet, shocked and spinning tales about Gaytri’s character in the village. Gaytri says, “Whenever I was crossing somewhere, people were staring at me in a very negative way. ‘This is that girl! She refused that wealthy guy!’” In another instance, her parents wanted her to meet a boy, but she was not interested. Thinking quickly, Gaytri combed her hair to make it look disheveled, and went to meet the boy, hoping that he would not be impressed. “I said no in my own way,” Gaytri says now, laughing at the memory. To this day, Gaytri has turned down 40 marriage proposals because none has felt right. Most girls get married around age 16, 17, or 18, and not many after 25. Gaytri is now 32, and quite happy. Always focused on moving forward, Gaytri holds her head high.

gaytri_kuhl

Others have also tested her internal strength, but Gaytri always responds thoughtfully. Once a few people were making fun of her for doing puja. They said, “Why do you do puja? Who is God? Have you ever seen God? I have never seen God. Why are you offering puja? Nothing is in this world, earning is the only thing in this world. Just forget it, puja is nothing.” She responded, “This thing is what you believe. But I believe that there is something. I believe in God. There is something, a superpower, God in nature. I like puja because I get peace and calm. That’s why I’m doing it…your belief is with you, and my belief is with me. I don’t have answers to all the questions. But I’m a believer. I was a believer, I am a believer, and I will be a believer. So that’s the answer I have, nothing else.”

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A Time of Struggle

Clear answers were hard to come by in 1999, when Gaytri’s father was diagnosed with cancer. It was a jarring shock, and his passing on Dec. 20th, 2000 shattered the foundation of the family. “Father was the only earning hand,” Gaytri explained, so hard times immediately fell upon their family. “It was very hard for my mother, too. She was not able to sleep on the bed, just on the floor, because that is the custom for widows. But who made that custom? Society made that custom, and women are suffering. My father died in December, and in Rakkar it is so cold in December. She had to wear a kind of skirt which is not warm enough, but she had to wear it. Then she couldn’t eat fish, chicken, healthy things. She couldn’t go anywhere at night for one year. For one year she had to be at home every night. She had to be in purdah, she could not participate in any rituals, any religious thing. The widow is not a part of society after her husband dies. If she tries, then society says she is a witch. One myth about widows says that if you see a widow on the way somewhere, you will not be successful in what you want to do. So the widow has to stay hidden or else people will feel cursed. She is not a human being anymore.”

The pressure also mounted on her older brother, who became increasingly abusive. “Every night he was yelling, shouting, oh my god…one day he got a big stick and he tried to hit my mother. Every day he was doing new things. He started beating me up.” For a six month period, Gaytri and her mother lived in fear of his fits of rage. “We were not able to eat, we were not able to sleep. For six months we couldn’t eat properly or sleep properly.” They often spent the nights at other homes to be safe. “One day he broke our door. He just kicked our door and broke it. And he had a big sickle in his hand, and he was saying, I will kill you! I will kill you!…Another night he got a big stick and he tried to hit my mother. And I took that stick and I said, ‘It’s enough.’”

It was midnight in the bone-biting cold of Himalayan winter, when everyone in the village goes to sleep at 8 o’clock. Yet Gaytri feared for their lives. She ran to the nearest telephone, about 2 km away, to call the police. The police said they couldn’t come, but if she really needed their assistance, she should send a car for them. Gaytri said, “I cannot send a car! I don’t have that much money. When will you come?? When he will kill us? Will you come in the morning, when he will kill someone?” They didn’t come. In the morning, they showed up and demanded to know who the girl was who had spoken so brazenly. Gaytri stepped forward and insisted, “I know how to speak, but the person who was talking with me was very rude; that’s why I was talking that way. I’ve been suffering with this condition for 6 months and I know this thing better than you. It is not nonsense.” The police hauled her brother off to the village meeting space and made him apologize to his mother. The family gave him his part of the land, and finally they had some relief as things settled back down.

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Expanding

An NGO called Nishtha started working in their village, and Gaytri began volunteering there in addition to her stitching work at home. She attended rallies, celebrated International Women’s Day, and participated in a street play on illiteracy. Soon another NGO called Jagori Grameen set up right down the road, and began recruiting girls to work part-time. They were only looking for girls who had completed 12th grade, but somehow Gaytri got a chance, and passed her interview. Jagori sent the selected girls for a computer training course in Shimla. It was Gaytri’s first time ever outside Dharamsala. “Shimla was like a foreign country for me at that time.” First she needed her family’s permission. “They said, how will you go to Shimla? Because at home, there are lots of things to do. Who will cut the grass? Who will do all the cattle work? Who will cook?”

gaytri_coworkers

Gaytri persisted, and cut a week’s supply of grass and gathered a week’s supply of dung to throw on the fields when she returned. Her mother was very unhappy, but Gaytri exclaimed, “I don’t want to do the things you are doing. I want to do something else in my life. And if I stop myself at home right now, then I won’t be able to move forward. So I will go.” Shimla was an overnight bus journey away, and Gaytri stayed up the whole night, talking with the other girls and looking at the scenery. The journey, the chance to learn not only what a computer was but how to use it, and the time with the other girls was unforgettable. “Oh I can’t explain, it was heaven, it was heaven for me.

Gaytri soon began working full-time at Jagori, and the organization sent her and two colleagues to the neighboring state of Uttar Pradesh for another training. This time it required taking a train. “Nobody knew what a train was like or what it looked like or how to get in. We had zero idea.” They got to the station early, and Gaytri roamed around, observing how the trains worked and how people got on and off. They successfully boarded and made it to their destination.

gaytri_jagori

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Travel & Progress at Jagori

Train travel in India should be a once-in-a-lifetime requirement for all of us. A typical compartment in sleeper class, the cheapest fare, is stacked with 8 beds that unfold from the walls like sweaty elbows. During the day everybody crowds down on the lower berth to sit, sweat, stare, and eat. Co-existing in such a cramped space for endless hours is made endurable by two things. First, the window. The window is the one source of fresh air and the reminder that progress is indeed being made. Its streaming portraits of rural India flow together into a patchwork of fields, scrubby trees, and barefoot children. Second, a continuous parade of people files through the train, providing entertainment, offering goods for sale, and chattering to anyone who will listen. “Paaaaper sooooap…twooo rupeeees!” A man calls out, shuffling down the aisle. “Hot chai! Hot chai! Hot chai!” Another repeats like a monotone mantra. Wind-up plastic toys from China, pails of salty snacks, newspaper neatly twisted into cones and packed with fruit, tangles of carrots, steaming pots of chai, flashlights, shawls, and more, offered by all sorts of characters. People missing limbs crawl by your knees, and some shake tiny offering trays, coins rattling and incense curling in smoke. It is a compression of humanity that demands your attention, knowing very well that you cannot escape. At night, the train becomes more gentle, and rocks all passengers to sleep.

I spent 30 hours on a train with Gaytri once, and the thrill of the journey never left her. She lit up our compartment with her jokes, conversations, and observations. There is never a dull moment for her, nor any reason to complain. “Traveling gives me a different perspective of looking at the world through different eyes,” Gaytri says, “I believe that travel makes me more confident. It gives me lots of inspiration to move forward. I want to see different people’s lives, how their lives are changing in different places. I thought people who lived in cities had fewer problems, but now I know that problems of poverty are everywhere. Traveling makes many changes in my life.”

gaytri_mumbai

Seeing new places also deepened Gaytri’s love for her home and for its natural beauty. “Now whenever I’m looking at my village from far away, I can see my home in the foothills. I feel very proud of myself. ‘Wow, I’m living at the foot of the mountains.’” Gaytri has found inspiration in those mountains, and also in the trees. “If I find an old age tree, I want to hug that tree! And ask, how old are you? The tree is still there. If it is raining, if it is too sunny, if a storm comes, whatever happens, it is still there in that place. Trees are full of fruit but they never have discrimination. They never give the best fruit to a rich person, or the worst fruit to a poor person. All are equal. People are doing lots of violence…they pluck their leaves, cut them down, take them…it hurts them but they never complain. I tell the tree, ‘I could learn something from you; not to be submissive, but how to face challenges in life. How to move forward in life.’ In difficult situations, we have to be there, not take a step back, just go ahead, move forward.”

gaytri_tree

At Jagori, Gaytri kept moving forward, and eventually became the leader of the agricultural program. The team experimented on the NGO’s land to test out various local myths about agricultural practices. For example, many believed that if girls sowed seeds in the field, the seeds would not germinate. One day an argument broke out at Gaytri’s home over whether or not she could sow the seeds. Her mother and brother were firmly against it. But Gaytri said to her brother, “How come if you will sow it, it will come, but if I sow it, it will not come? What is wrong with me? No, I will sow it.” And she did. Fear tugged at her heart for the 15 day germination period, but the seeds sprouted and she said to herself, “Oh, thank God it came out!”

gaytri_mamta

Similar myths were busted on the Jagori land, and then extended to farmers groups that the agricultural team started forming in local villages. Gaytri organized meetings and held trainings on various agricultural techniques. People were very pleased with the information she shared, and she grew to be a well-known leader in the community. She also became an official “Farmer Friend,” receiving trainings at the local agricultural university and connecting local farmers to helpful resources and information. “At Jagori I got a lot of exposure and learned many things. I built a good connection with government officials, went to the agricultural university and met with scientists.” From farmers to government officials, Gaytri can strike up a conversation with the ease of lighting a match, and these connections remain strong. Even with language barriers, she is skilled at reading body language and connecting anyways. Foreign volunteers coming to work at Jagori helped her begin to learn English. “Before that I just knew yes and no, right and wrong; only four words in English!” Gaytri continued her studies, completing 11th and 12th grade, and beginning a Bachelor of Social Work by correspondence through Indira Gandhi National Open University, a distance learning program.

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Tackling Social Issues

In 2010, Gaytri’s village began gearing up for the election of the gram panchayat, the local form of governance. Family members and friends urged her to run for pradhan, the highest position of the governing body. She initially refused, but they said, “No you should try! Because you are a good leader.” Eventually she gave in and signed up. Six candidates campaigned, visiting the area villages and mobilizing voters. Some candidates gave out chicken, alcohol, and even rupees in return for votes. Gaytri came in second with 220 votes, with the winner accumulating 240. Even though she came in second, Gaytri continued to participate in her local government. She served on three committees, the health, social audit, and NREGA (National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) committees, and worked to hold leaders accountable with documentation, completing social audits, providing information about budgets, and cooperating with pensions.

gaytri_baba

At one point, there was a selection for the BPL (Below Poverty Line) designation. This identification based on a family’s or individual’s income grants certain government assistance to those who most need it. The panchayat had gone ahead and selected 90 people, but refused to show the list at an open meeting with 250 people attending. Gaytri insisted, and read from the list. The panchayat had chosen many wealthy or well-off people, and when the gathered villagers heard the names, they were quick to correct the error. “Those who got off the BPL list were very angry with me, and they started to call me pradhan. They were using my village name, my caste name, with my name, and they said, ‘She is the pradhan of that cast! This girl took us off of BPL!’” The happy ones now rightly on the BPL list said, “Oh my god. Why did we not give her our vote for pradhan?”

In 2011, I had the great pleasure of working alongside Gaytri and the agricultural team at Jagori. We worked hard, but more importantly, we shared so many laughs and stories from our lives. When playing Holi, the holiday celebrating the coming of spring, traditionally you throw colorful powder and water at one another. At Jagori, gentle smearings of color on each others’ faces soon dissolved into squeals of laughter, mad chases through the gardens, forced dunks in the pond, and buckets of water endlessly dumped on each other. Gaytri was often seen streaking across the yard to bombard someone with a bucket of water. She said with a mischievous grin, “The most important thing is to make noise. When you make noise, then people are getting afraid and they run. It is soooo funny to see them run.”

gaytri_berries

I also saw that Gaytri is a true role model for young girls in her village. “They’re saying, in this village, there are many girls, but there is no girl like Gaytri. What to do? Marriage is a thing after studying, but if we would become like Gaytri, that would be something else. Now girls can do anything.” When issues or problems arise, they often turn to Gaytri for help. Gaytri says they claim, “Ask her to climb up the tree, she will climb up. She will climb easily. Ask her to play, she is playing. Ask her to give a speech in the gram panchayat, or anywhere, she will do it. Ask her to lead a meeting. She will collect women in a minute. Whenever people ask, she is helping.” Her hard work, determination, and ability to handle a lot of responsibility inspires the people around her. Her auntie and others say to her, “Hats off to you. How do you handle so many things at once? Give us some tips to handle many things at one time.” From old to young, respect is widespread. “The younger kids are taking their bags and they start to walk like me, talk like me. They are saying, “OK, Gaytri! Yes, Gaytri! Whatever I’m saying, they are just making mimicry and trying to be like me. Sometimes tears come out when I’m looking at the younger girls, trying to be like me.”

gaytri_kids

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An Opportunity

Gaytri applied and was selected for the 2013-2014 class of AIF W.J. Clinton Fellows for Service in India, which matches leaders in the development field with dynamic NGOs to catalyze social and economic change. Her placement in the northeastern state of Guwahati is with Purbanchal Maitri Development Society. Gaytri is involved with one program that trains women to work in the field of domestic service. She has led numerous trainings, workshops, and reviews. In one training on domestic violence, a woman let her know that she had been abused by her husband for the past 20 years. The woman said, “Today I got some courage. Enough is enough– it’s been twenty years. I will not be beaten any more now. I will go to the police station, and I’ll ask for help.”

The fellowship opportunity has allowed Gaytri to see different parts of India, collaborate with a diverse group of Indian and American fellows, develop new skills, and continue to move forward in life. “It is very hard for me to explain how happy I am in this fellowship. Really. I have no words to say how happy I am. My heart is expanding whenever I’m talking about it. It’s expanding, and expanding, and expanding…without words. It’s like heaven.”

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The Future

 

Most recently, Gaytri heard the wonderful news of acceptance into Azim Premji University’s Master of Arts in Development Studies, a 2 year program to educate and train professionals in the development sector. The opportunity to study at a high quality university will certainly open new doors for Gaytri. With a wealth of practical experience in the field, Gaytri is eager to improve her skills through formal education. “Now I am learning, but I can’t read or write much. My schooling and childhood was not like that…that’s why I didn’t get the habit to read and write. I want to learn from other students, students from different backgrounds, learn from teachers and professors, and see myself in a different place, in a different world…I believe that education is the most, most, most important thing in our lives. Education is the main tool to move forward, to open the door to what you want to do. Whatever my dreams are, I will be able to make my dreams succeed. Whatever valuable education I will get, I will help other students and kids with that education, because whatever I suffered, I don’t want them to suffer the same thing.”

For the future, Gaytri dreams of starting her own organization to serve young widows and their children. I have no doubt that she will move forward with that megawatt smile beaming a way through the challenges and joys ahead of her. I picture her gliding along village roads on her scooter, saying, “Nobody is going to stop me now, and nobody can stop me now. Whatever I want to do, I can do. Wherever I want to go, I can go.”

May 2016 update: Gaytri has received a prestigious Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship to study at Cornell University for the 2016-2017 academic year. She is, naturally, ecstatic.