I watched a woodpecker as it clung to the sides of the cylindrical bird feeder hanging on my deck. Its claws gripped tightly as the receptacle swung in an arc, making it difficult for him to access the seeds poking through the green wire mesh.
He pecked away, nonetheless. Determination was key. The desire to successfully get that morsel drove him to come back, time and again. I continued to watch, my arms folded across my body to keep warm. Winter is not my favorite season. Cold, snowy weather had set in across the length of the Eastern Seaboard and we had been lucky: only about six inches had fallen here in rural southern Virginia. As I watched the long beak of the bird poking at the mesh, I was reminded of someone I had met during a trip to India. Ah, the heat, the overwhelming fierceness of the Indian sun. It is a memory I turn to often when it gets cold!
Ana, our diminutive, short- haired tour guide personified the qualities of determination. She was able to corral our disparate group into a cohesive unit through sheer force of her personality. She brooked no tardiness, warning us of long lines of buses, filled with tourists such as us wanting to visit the historical sites. “I will give you five minutes. That is all. If you are not here within five minutes of the designated time, I will leave you here at the hotel; we shall go without you!”
That was enough for me: I am habitually punctual and cannot stand the fact that other people do not respect the need to be on time. I liked her immediately.
That Ana was different was evident not only in her firmness but also her story. As a member of the warrior caste, the Rajuput of Rajasthan, she was expected to marry into her own caste. Suitor after suitor had been chosen for her, but none was to her liking. This girl enjoyed her independence, which had already manifested itself in her desire to practice martial arts when she was a little girl.
“I persuaded my mother that I should take judo,” she said, her eyes laughing as she remembered the rift she had caused between her parents because of her decision. Her mother, an academic, could see that her daughter was serious in taking up an athletic activity that was clearly not suitable for well-bred Indian girls. “Father was told nothing – in fact, we lied to him, telling him that I was taking art classes at a school close to the gym. He might never have known had I not participated in a judo competition. I beat all the boys to become the local champion. So the next day, there I was, in the newspaper.” She began to laugh, an infectious, joyful laugh that hinted at a naughtiness that was endearing. Her deep brown eyes crinkled at the corners as she continued her story of girlish defiance.
“It was my job to bring in the newspaper for my dad in the mornings. I saw the article and photograph, so I tore out the page. When my father asked what had happened to that page, I told him I had no idea!”
I could just imagine his puzzlement. The story came to a head, however, when the very serious, very professorial patriarch reached work. Suddenly his office was full of colleagues who had come to congratulate him on his daughter’s success.
“But that cannot be her!” he said, exasperated. “It is impossible! I would never allow her to participate in such an activity!”
There was a huge row when he got home that evening. He and Ana’s mother did not speak to each other for a month. He finally relented when other males in the family took up Ana’s cause. She was permitted to continue judo. She later became regional champion for her age group.
But she was to buck the system again when she wanted to become a tour guide. She had grown up in Agra, and was very familiar with the Taj Mahal, its history, its grandeur and its symbolism. She had seen an advertisement in the newspaper for a tour company that had a vacancy for a tour guide. Ana managed to get an appointment for an interview and was told, “We’re sorry, we don’t actually have any vacancy. The paper made a mistake.”
Unfazed by this sexist, patriarchal system, she bravely said, “Well, if you ever need anyone to sub for a guide, let me know!”
“We will call you,” the manager said.
“I did not believe him,” she said bluntly.
So she went to the office every day, with her sandwich in a brown paper bag, a bottle of water and a newspaper under her arm.
“I sat in the waiting room every day from nine till five, waiting for the day that someone would call in sick. I knew they wouldn’t call me, so I made sure they wouldn’t forget me. I was right here under their noses.”
After about three weeks a tour guide called in sick. She was offered the opportunity to guide a couple who wanted a private tour of the beautiful monument.
“I was so nervous! I was stammering, but the couple – from the UK – were so kind!” she recounts.
Based on the recommendation of their review of her abilities, she was offered a part time position which eventually led to better things: a full time job, guiding tourists on excursions lasting ten or more days.
Ana had beat the system, she had won her fight against stereotypes that kept girls suppressed in India. She stood against everything that revered the old order: it was not something she would ever accept with complacency. Like the feisty woodpecker, she had pecked away against the shell that cocooned and held women hostage in a country where marriage and family and compliance are the norm.
Every small act of defiance cracks open the door to let in the light. We can only find that courage within ourselves to change our lives; to find the goddess within and allow her to rise in her power. Some are born to do great deeds, but most of us can be a small but powerful example of how we can change the world for the better.
Nurture that Spirit, feed it with Light and celebrate your power for it has been waiting a long, long time to burst into flower!