Dedication: I'd like to dedicate to my parents, for having a dream for themselves and making it possible for me to achieve mine.
Everyone has heard that expression at one time or another. By no means am I a religious person, but one day, when on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to India with my dad, its meaning became crystal clear to me.
My parents are of Indian descent, but grew up in the Caribbean in the 50s and 60s. My mom was a young bride, not by force, but by choice; she had an opportunity to run away with her new groom and start a new life—a life full of dreams and plans in a new land called America.
I am the first child on both sides of the extended family born in America. As the oldest girl, it was my job to help with my younger siblings, to be a good big sister. To help my mom do what was needed around the house. But it was also my job to do well in school and pull in the grades and rack up the awards and trophies that would make my parents proud and put me on a path to a better life. I can’t say I remember feeling any resentment towards the responsibility on my shoulders, it was just the way it was.
My mom would tell the stories of how as a girl, she had to cook and clean for her siblings, but as a middle child, her life was easier – the oldest girls always had it hardest. They were taken out of school to care for the rest of the children in the family. They endured the worst of the beatings from their fathers and even mothers and grandmothers when they tried to assert their opinions or get their own way. The oldest girl had one place in life – where her parents told her to be. That was usually in the kitchen.
I knew the stories well. But it was that one day on vacation in India did I really know how lucky I was.
I was about 35, working as a journalist in London. My dad was about to turn 60. We’d always talked about going to India together and at last the opportunity came. We had just done two days in Agra, visiting the magic of the Taj Mahal, and were driving through the magical countryside in Uttar Pradesh when our tour guide pointed out a family living by the side of the road.
The girl was beautiful. She was probably about 16, if that. She was dressed in a stunning purple and gold sari, an incredible sight against the dry, dusty Indian landscape. Our tour guide, Anil, explained the family’s story.
Prostitution is the family business, he said. The family had allegedly lived there for decades (he might have even said centuries) selling the oldest daughter’s body to men in transit from Agra to Jaipur. Any children born from her interactions with her customers were taken in and raised as part of the family. Each firstborn girl, once old enough, would sit along the road side, her body also sold to passers-by so the rest of the family could eat and so that the boys could go to school.
The story was unbelievable. I was overwhelmed by the beauty and tragedy of the scene and of the tour guide’s story. I saw the hopelessness in the eyes of that beautiful young girl in purple. I looked at my dad and tears came to my eyes. I thanked him. That phrase—there but for the grace of God go I—came to my mind. I understood – REALLY understood what it meant. It could have been me in that sari, perched by the side of the road, forced into a life of slavery. Or me in an anonymous kitchen somewhere, cooking and cleaning and dreaming, but never able to make my dreams come true. Instead, I had amazing parents who wanted something different for their daughters AND their sons.
They wanted me to go to school. To achieve. And to be proud of my achievements. There but for the grace of God I walked.
That young woman still haunts me. She tells me every day that I’ve already won the lottery – I was born in America, to good parents. My life is my own to live. I wasn’t able to stop the bus to give that young woman money, or to show her I cared. I don’t know what I could have done to help her, or women like her, other than donate to charities that protect women from lives of slavery, so I do that. But when I came back home to London, I resolved to be a mentor to young women. To be a person who pushed young women forward, not hold them back. Because whatever power, whatever encouragement, whatever resources you give a woman, she will turn it into something greater.