Manju had always been a rebel. At 6 years of age, she’d loudly refused to stop wearing her brother’s pants, insisting they were more comfortable for climbing up trees. At age 8, she’d kicked and screamed, when Baba suggested pulling her out of school to learn “feminine” skills like cooking and housework. She was a good athlete and a better student. And a constant source of concern to her parents.
“One day Maa, you’ll see! I’ll get a big job. Then you can sit back and rest easy!”
It was often futile to argue with Manju. From the corner of the house, Baba sighed as Maa hung up his work boots to dry. A poor family, sometimes dreams were all they could afford. So they said nothing. Nodded and sighed and worried about school fees.
Manju worked evenings at the local market. She fetched endless cups of tea and cleaned up after the vendors. A paisa there, a rupee here. She kept adding them to her little tin box. One day, she found out they couldn’t afford school anymore. She was a rebel but also a realist. So she hugged Baba and set about working harder. That tin box grew heavier as weeks turned into years. Baba and Maa wished her well, but never aloud. Instead, they now sighed and worried about wedding costs.
“Marriage? What are you talking about, Maa?” she asked when their whispers became unbearable.
“Well”, Baba hesitated. We hoped you might settle down now. “You’re almost 20. Most girls your age are married with kids,”.
Manju chewed her lip. The realist inside her thought hard too.
“I want to work some more!” she announced. “Not just at the market. I’ve saved money and now I want to put that to good use,”.
“But, what about Marriage? You can work after, surely. If your husband agrees.”
Manju snorted and traipsed away, head filled with ideas of her own. Marriage and its woes were not at the top of her list.
So prospective grooms came and went. Her parents grew weary and a little less hopeful, each time Manju shook her head in refusal. But they said nothing. They sighed and worried about inflating costs as the calendar pages flew with a life of their own.
Winter of 1995 was drawing to a close. A weak sun shone on the busy railway station. No more than 2 feet away from a rather worried looking young girl, Manju and her fellow vegetable vendors sat down for a breather.
“I hope the next train is empty”, said Savita Didi, rubbing her neck. She looked curiously at the girl nearby who was now fidgeting with her dupatta. Probably waiting for a boy, she thought and smiled. The juice stall man whistled a leery tune as Didi turned to Manju.
“So, did another man come see you yesterday?”
Manju nodded as a loud honk announced the next train rushing in. She stood up and placed the basket of vegetables on her head. She remembered the rather skinny man who’d come home yesterday. Baba and Maa had exchanged dubious looks as they took in his faded shirt and scuffed pants. He had the kindest eyes and a rather toothy grin. (Oh! And the way he beamed as if he found her so refreshing).
But mostly she thought about his dreams and his vision. He’d spoken of swimming against the tide, with no trace of arrogance. A simple man, honest in all the ways it mattered. Maybe he even had a little tin box of his own.
She boarded the carriage, helping Savita Tai behind her. As the train puffed and left the station, she saw the young girl talking to a boy. Something about the flash of joy on the girl’s face resonated with Manju. That sense of belonging with someone who wanted the same things as you.
The train picked up speed as Manju grabbed a corner of the compartment. She planned to meet him again. And instead of marriage, she’d ask if he would be her business partner. Equals in every way, dreamers alike. Together, with their tin boxes, they could build something worth fighting for. Marriage and its woes could wait.
Summer of 1995. Big companies and bigger jobs everywhere. Everyone had somewhere to be.

And finally, so did Manju. She was a Rebel after all.

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