This week we bring out the life and struggle of Noorbanu Begum, resident of Mahendraganj, South West Garo Hills, Meghalaya, 57 years old Hindi teacher of a local Girls High School where she is teaching for last 33 years. [Admin]
Educating myself was the biggest challenge in my life. My father Nurul Haque was a farmer and a rich bussiness man. His export business on jute fetched us huge income and respect in the society. His first wife had an unfortunate maternity death leaving three young kids. There was no hospital in Mahendraganj in 1954 and maternity care was confined at home only. My father then remarried my mother Rohima Begum in the year 1954. My mother was only 14 years old. My father would supply jute in the nearby commercial city of Dhubri in Assam, a distance of about 200 km from Mahendraganj. He needed to cross Brahmaputra river in between to reach Dhubri. One day in 1973, my father left home for his business in a public bus and never returned. He simply went missing and no information of his whereabouts is available till date. We heard that he owned a truck and bought it at a cost of 88 thousand rupees. We have no clue of it. I was 8 years old at that time. I remember my uncle filed a FIR in Dhubri, Assam. However, we couldnt follow up the case and we dont know the outcome of the investigation till date. My mother was a burqa clad, purdah practicing woman and coming out of the house was forbidden for women those days. She hardly knew anything about my fathers business and had no idea of his wealth. My youngest brother was only one and half years old when this tragedy happened to our family.
Suddenly everything changed. The burden of the family was on my mother. I still wonder how she managed everything despite being a housewife. We had agricultural land to grow rice. Along with that we started kitchen garden at home for vegetables. A small poultry farm was also helpful. We also opened a grocery shop at our house. My siblings from previous marriage of my father were married off and they were settled elsewhere. They would sometime visit and help us. We could hardly manage hand to mouth. We managed everything in life with bare minimum.
Primary school was about 2 km away from home. The hurdle for me was not the distance but the social perception. Girls education was a total NO in my village. But my mother was keen to educate all his children. She realized the importance of being self-independent. She gifted one goat to us. We would look after it like our own child. Once the goat is grown up, we would sell it. Its milk also provided some money. The income from this was dedicated for our education. This way we managed our school fees, cost of books and stationary. We did it in our entire educational life. Luckily no goat died. Our pigeons were also a source of income. Every month we could sell 2-3 pairs in the weekly market. Grocery shop helped us to meet our own food expenses as well as to have a regular income. My mother was very hard working. She used to give us a list of grocery and after attending school, we would buy those and go home. This way we maintained our shop. We used to keep our books with us in the shop and when there is no customer, we used to read. Household chores were divided among the five siblings and it was not a big burden for us.
Schooling became another challenge when I reached class ten. I was the first girl from my village to reach this stage. Village boys started bothering me. They would often block me on way to prevent me from going to school. To counter them I had to change the route to my school. I had to take a detour and this increased the distance from 2 km to 4 km. Everyday I had to walk about 8 km for schooling. Often I was late in school and had to face punishment from teachers for being late. Due to fear, I never revealed the real reason for delay to my teachers. I didnt share my sufferings with my mother thinking that she might stop me from schooling. One female teacher Sulema Khatun morally supported me a lot in those days and asked me to be bold and self-independent and not to give up education at any cost. It was very encouraging for me.
To appear matriculation examination, I had to travel to Tura, about 80 km away from Mahendraganj. A resident there supported my accommodation and I carried cooking utensils and a helper for fifteen days. This is how I appeared examination and passed matriculation 1981 successfully in third division. It was a big achievement for me considering our family condition.
There was no college in Mahendraganj. After two years, a college started, Acheng Rangmanpa College. Named after the father and father in law of Late Purno A Sangma, a former speaker of Loksabha, this college aimed to provide education up to graduation in Arts. P A Sangma actively supported this initiative and the founders of the college were desparetely looking for students. So I got enrolment easily. I appeared examination for 11th class. However, I couldnt complete 12th due to lack of books and motivation.
I started teaching as a volunteer in a local girls primary school with a hope for employment in future. But it didnt work. Then I stopped and started my own tuition classes two times a day. This fetched me little income.
With the help of a female teacher I tried to get myself recruited in a handloom project in Kalaipara, about ten km away from Mahendraganj. There was no road and I had to walk a long distance to reach the place daring heavy rain. I was not selected probably because I was a non-tribal.
In the mean time, I completed a course in Hindi language and graduated from Rastra Bhasa Prachar Samiti. I became Bisharath (graduation) in Hindi. A girls high school opened in Mahendraganj in the meantime where I got a job to teach Hindi but without salary. A meagre honorarium of 100 rupees was offered after six months. After two years, my salary increased to 150 rupees. It took another 4 years to raise my salary to 300 rupees. It’s only in 2002, I received a salary of 3500 rupees. Thanks to a grant from the government. For last one year, I earned 11 thousand per month.
Despite all these achievements, my struggles didnt end. I was fun loving, actively took part in cultural programmes. Menfolk in our conservative society would criticize me and called bad names. Once I took part in an all girls football match in 1989 along with my students. I was the only teacher to do so to be a goal-keeper. This made menfolk in the society furious. A meeting was organized soon after by the menfolk and they decided to socially boycott me. In the mosque, my brother, a religious leader was questioned. They complained to my husband as well. My husband defended me saying that its a democratic country and I can do what I want because rights are equal for everyone. His stand saved me from further abuses by these moral police of the society.
I faced a lot of challenges in my personal life too. My marriage was fixed with a married man soon after I completed matriculation. I heard horrible stories of that man. He apparently hanged his own wife and killed her. Due to the pressure from villagers, my mother agreed to this marriage. I vehemently objected to this marriage and asked my uncle to cancel it. I was called a bad woman for rejecting marriage and people blamed my education. I gave up the plan for marriage. I was looking for job and the job in girls high school was a blessing. In the meantime another man approached for marriage. I put up a condition that I will not leave job after marriage. I didnt want to burden anyone financially. This man Shahinoor Islam from Assam accepted my condition and I married him in 1989. My husband was a graduate however he had no job at that time. He started a business and managed from hand to mouth. I gave birth to one daughter in 1990 and one son in 1993. The day my son was born, my husband got job as Panchayet secretary in Jhagrachar, Assam at a salary of 900 rupees. This improved our financial condition and we bought a small plot for our house. After ten years, we could build our house.
I ensured good education for my children. My children completed graduation. Son is a teacher and has a computer shop. The daughter is looking after her family and is happily married.
My biggest learning in life is that there is discrimination and exploitation in every stage of life. Thats why one needs to be self-dependent instead of nurturing expectation from others. Everything in life has to be achieved step by step. Nothing will come automatically. Now-a-days there are more opportunities than what I faced. Girls must realize this and be educated and financially independent. Women must claim their space in the society. If a struggle is required for that, let it be.