‘To my daughter I am the most beautiful woman in the world’

‘To my daughter I am the most beautiful woman in the world’

Touching story of a women with grit who fought against her in-laws and social apathy in a remote hamlet in Uttarakhand. She is now an inspiration for lakhs of women in the hill state.

By Puja Awasthi


efore I can protest, Mamta Airi has flung the printed black kurta off her back, exposing an expanse of mangled, soft pink flesh. Even in that dimly lit room, I have no courage to look upon it. I turn away.

I have waited for over two hours at Mamta’s home in the village of Badabe Dhari (Pithoragarh). My car has broken down. The sole of my shoe has come undone. The clouds have grown inkier. My local guide has implored me to leave before darkness caves in- but I have been unable to move. Mamta’s story has fascinated me since I first heard it. To
know that a woman’s fight for justice turned into something bigger in a state that largely owes its creation to the grit of its women and feeds off their hard work, yet routinely denies them their right is a story worth listening to and repeating.

I know that in the winter of 2012- four years after marriage, Mamta was set on fire by her husband Lal Singh for giving birth to a daughter and for carrying another. I know that she did not baulk at the idea of seeking legal help against him. I also know that her case prompted a crackdown on sex determination clinics in Pithoragarh. But it is what I do not know that has drawn me to Mamta’s single storied house where the walls are blue and the windows are framed with red paint. I want to know the dreams that live in her and the demons that haunt her. I want to know which spring of courage she drinks from and ask if I can taste from it as well.

Mamta (6)

The face of determination and hope…

Once she returns with a pile of dead wood on her back- to be used to cook dinner, we settle in the only room that has a cot. She insists she will sit on the floor. I sit next to her.

In a soft voice she paints the contours of her life- a carefree childhood, a deep interest in studies, marriage at the age of 16 only because her parents thought that the son of an army man was a great catch by all standards and some months of happiness. All swiftly undone as soon as she fell pregnant. ‘Do not give birth to a daughter’- she was told, warned and then threatened. When the daughter came- she was yanked from Mamta’s arms and given away to Lal Singh’s elder brother who was in Bageshwar.

“It felt as though someone had pulled my heart out of my body”, she says- her voice liquid with tears.

The second pregnancy happened soon after. Her husband was unwilling to risk the burden of another daughter and tricked Mamta into undergoing a sex determination test. He then tried to talk her into an abortion, not uncommon in a state where the child sex ratio at 886 girls for every 1000 boys is far worse than the grown up figure of 963 women for every 1000 men, and an indication of how girls have been devalued over the decades.

One evening, after Lal Singh’s months of threats and thrashings had failed to have the desired effect, as Mamta sat down to prepare dinner she felt the splash of a viscous liquid (kerosene- as Mamta was to learn later) down her back. A second later Lal Singh had flung a lighted match at her.

“My senses exploded. All I remember is running out of the kitchen and falling at a neighbour’s feet”, she says.

At that moment she throws her kurta off her back.

I flinch. She asks that I look. And then demands that I do.

The skin on Mamta’s back has peeled off. For the first time she removes the red shawl that covers her head and I notice tightly wound black wool that has she has plaited to look like hair and framed around her face. I notice the singed ear and the remainders of the horror on her forehead, neck and right hand.

“I was beautiful once. I had thick, black hair. I loved to sing…”, her voice trails off.

The weeks that followed were a haze. Mamta fell in and out of consciousness. In those brief periods that she could hear, Lal Singh pleaded with her that he was a changed man and would take very good care of her if only she would keep their ‘little argument’ to herself and not tell the police. She complied. But the day she was handed over her second daughter- an infant whose skull had borne some of the trauma her mother had faced, Lal Singh and his mother disappeared.

Mamta (4)

A dejected Mamta returned to her parent’s home resigned to being just another number in the 40% ever married Indian women who report some form of abuse in their married home.

But she found no peace. She speaks of questions that hammered her brain- was her life of no consequence and were her daughters to have no rights.

Mamta then sought legal help- seeking protection through the Protection of Women From Domestic Violence Act- a far reaching piece of legislation that recognises women’s right to redress without resorting to the criminal justice system.  An NGO collective helped her file a Domestic Incident report and sent it to the Protection Officer. The organisation also wrote to the DM, the DDO and the CMO about Mamta’s plight and followed this up by filing an FIR under Section 307 of the IPC against Lal Singh, his mother and the doctor who had conducted the sex determination test. The issue was also raised in front of the state’s Pre conception and Pre Natal Diagnostic Techniques Committee and a crackdown on illegal sex determination clinics ordered.

Unaware of the great publicity her case had received, Mamta returned to her marital home armed with an order that gave her right of residence. Her mother-in-law retorted by locking up the home and asking Mamta to live with the cattle. But when the village elders intervened, one room was thrown open for Mamta and the daughter who had now been named Sonam.

By August 2013, Mamta’s scars had begun to heal. On the orders of the CMO she had been provided free of cost surgery to restore the shape of her ear and graft skin onto her right arm.

The case she had filed under Sections 18, 19, 20 and 22 of the PWDVA also got her the promise of Rs 6,000 for her maintenance, Rs 2,000 for each daughter and Rs 5 lakh as compensation for the physical and mental abuse she had subjected to.

She began looking at the mirror once again.

The daily grind of tending to the cattle, fetching firewood and looking after her daughter have blunted the sharpness of her pain.

I ask if she is happy. “What do I measure it by”, she asks me.

Lal Singh never returned. She hears he is in Baroda and drives a cab for a living. He sends in some money intermittently. He even bought her a cow in a reconciliatory gesture. His mother comes in occasionally to make sure that the rooms she has locked remain so.

For all the agony Lal Singh has caused her, Mamta holds no grudges. “It is destiny. If I look back I will not be able to build a future for my daughters”, she explains.

I tell Mamta I cannot comprehend her kindness even though I realise how much courage it must have taken on her part to show it to a man who destroyed her life.

Memories of that evening when she sat hunched over the stove continue to haunt Mamta. Some nights she wakes up with a jolt imagining a fire coursing through the single room she shares with Sonam. Some nights she wants to scream. Some nights she cries till dawn. She has never been able to cook in an enclosed area again.

I ask her what power holds her together. She takes my hand and leads me down the narrow steps to the room we have been sitting in.

She points to Sonam playing with some neighbourhood children. “To my daughter I am the most beautiful woman in the world. Why must anything else matter”, she asks as the delighted toddler squeals and rushes into her arms.

I take a picture.

We embrace.

I can now make the journey home.

 Pooja 5
Puja Awasthi is convinced she was a fig tree up in the Himalayas in her past life. That is why when she is not writing or communicating for a living, she is plotting an escape to Uttarakhand whose people and music fascinate her as much as its pulses and monkeys. Her areas of interest are gender, terrorism, politics and education. A Chevening fellow, she dreams of writing the next great Indian novel before finding that perfect fig tree to retire under.

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  1. Dr Awasthi August 31, at 03:23

    Thanks for a true story that shakes the soul of the reader

  2. Megha September 03, at 05:47

    I always believed we pahadis are away from the malice of dowry. This articles proves me wrong in a very sad way. Yet it strengthens the belief that Pahadi women are most strong and fearless. Kudos to Mamta!! Thanks Puja and Uttarakhand Panorama for this piece. Looking forward to such enlightening and awakening stories.

    • Uttarakhand Panorama September 03, at 10:35

      Yes, Pahadi women are undoubtedly gritty and of firm resolve. They are fighters and they have proven it time and again. Dowry is one curse that we all need to fight. It is indeed very sad when we hear cases of dowry deaths and harassment. We have to fight this social evil together. Puja Awasthi, who has special affection for Uttarakhand, has been raising social and women issues on national and international platforms. We all thank her and wish her good luck. Thanks for appreciation.


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