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The Overpowering Identity

HCRL's picture

While I studied abroad in Hyderabad, India, I lived with a fantastic host family. They were a farirly wealthy family, and had many people working at their house. I spent quite a lot of time with 3 of them: Durgamma, the amazing live-in cook, Naresh, the driver and Laxmi, a young woman who helped Durgamma.

Laxmi worked in the house from 9-5 every day, at which point she left to go to her home a few blocks away. Laxmi spoke some English, so I learned a fair amount about her life. She is 16, and just got married in May. She took me to see her home which was impeccably kept, but extremely small and basic. It consisted of a 1 room tin structure for her and her parents. Laxmi went to school until the age of 15, when her family left their village and moved to Hyderabad (a big city).  Her family’s goal was to come to the city, earn some money, and return home.

Durgamma is an incredible woman in her 50s who left her village after her husband passed away 7 years ago. She works each day from about 5 AM to 10 PM and only leaves the house to run errands for the family. Apart from her bus ticket home, and gifts for her grandchildren, Durgamma sends all of her income to her many children and grandchildren still in her village. She speaks Telugu (the local language), and understands a few words of English and Hindi. While I don’t know how much schooling she had, the fact that she does not speak Hindi indicates that it was likely not much. Despite our pretty serious language barrier, we managed to communicate decently well and built a connection I cherish.

Naresh is a young man in his early 20s who also left his village to work in the city. While I was there, he learned that a wife, also named Laxmi, had been “arranged” for him. I learned from Naresh that Laxmi was going to leave her village and come to Hyderabad to live with him. In the village she was studying to be a teacher, but once she moved to Hyderabad she would stop her studies as one year of a teacher studies program in Hyderabad cost more than 4 times Naresh’s yearly income.

For all of these individuals, identities that they had little control over prevented them from receiving a full formal education. I know that Laxmi (the young woman who worked in my home) enjoyed school (she perhaps would have identified as a learner) but that was irrelevant to her and her family. The expectation was clear that she would work (just like her parents) to support their family, and her future family. While I never met the other Laxmi, I would guess that she also liked school if she wanted to become a teacher. For both of these women, their (self identified or ascribed) identities as daughter and wife, along with their socioeconomic status, were of greater importance than any other identity, including student. It is interesting to think about which identities overpower the others when it comes to access to education. Durgamma, for example, is working tirelessly so she can send money back to her family, and so her grandchildren can attend school. She was very proud that her grandkids were in school, which she made very clear to me through a friend who spoke Telugu and some English.  To me, it seems like she was laboring so her grandkids could have the luxury of choosing what identity is most important to them. 


jccohen's picture


I'm struck by how much you were able to connect with and learn from and with the people you write about here, even with the evident gaps in geography, position, education...  Interesting that although gender and class dimensions of identity seem to 'overpower' other dimensions for the people you write about here, Durgamma in particular asserts something about her identity by her commitment to supporting her grandchildren's schooling.  You speculate that this may have to do with seeking "the luxury of choice" for her grandkids.  And this makes me wonder about the frameworks the people themselves might carry; for example, do you have any sense about whether these people think in terms of "access" and choice?