The ability to choose your tradeoffs is empowering

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Sari shop, Old Delhi, India, January 9th 2009

Sonia is just 26 years old. She went to work at age 9, when other little girls were going to school. She didn't say if she started working as a gofer in a beauty parlour after school and actually graduated, though it seems likely since she sounded polished and literate for someone whose father runs the neighbourhood ironing stall. But that can be misleading as Professor Higgins would be wont to say.

She is the eldest of five – two brothers and two sisters. Her mother passed away when she was very young and her father is a drunkard, as they say. The household rests upon her shoulders, and still, she smiles as she talks to me about her work and the choices she has made in life and the decisions that she has taken. There is a strong sense of 'shakti' here, although at one point she gazed sightlessly across the road to tell me that these days, she cannot sleep at night, financial worries keep her uneasy, tossing and turning.

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Friendly neighbourhood ironing guy

Let me tell you her story. I only found out about the real hardships later, after she had left, for in our conversation which lasted over three hours, never once did she let slip the true extent of what was happening in her daily life.

Head of household – single, 26, female, trained only as a cosmetician. Skilled physical labour, not casual, mind you, pedicures, manicures, facials and all of that stuff. Works on demand, on call, by a roster of regular clients who invite her over to their homes to give them personal service, not a fulltime job at a parlour. A decision she made for the flexibility that this gives her to manage her household's needs, her family obligations and all the domestic challenges and chores. The difference in income? Significant enough to raise my eyebrows since her reputation among the parlours in New Delhi is such that she could walk into any one of them earning three times as much as she does right now.

Such are the tradeoffs we make.

Was it worth it, I asked, when you could make so much more? The bleak look is momentarily fleeting and her eyes sparkle as she emphasizes what being mistress of her own time means to her right now with no employer to answer to or beg for time off in the event of an emergency.  Even though, even though, her financial burdens are such that would crush anyone.

Her younger sister has made an excellent alliance with a good family, the marriage is to be in the spring. Everything was planned, they were ready to do good by her, it would make her future. Sonia had been putting Rs 2000 away every month in a 'savings scheme' circle in her neighbourhood over the past few years, scrimping just for this day. She was to receive 250,000 rupees in time for the wedding when the person in charge of the funds disappeared into thin air taking at total of 20 million rupees that the members had invested. Whom can you trust in the city, she said, its not like the village you know where you can't really get away with these kinds of things, after all, how far will you go and besides the rest of your family is still there.

Hm. 

Such freedom and flexibility come at a high price but for Sonia the tradeoff has been worth it, empowering her as it does to be mistress of her own time and working hours, permitting her to structure her days as she sees fit. Her focus is her choice. Her mobile phone her lifeline.

She already knows that she will never marry. She tells me, even as we grin at each other in recognition, that now, after having run her household (including fighting her family's battles with her father and taking over the decision making), making her own decisions, earning money as and when it suits her needs, she doesn't think that it would work for her in the context of her social class, culture and ethnic heritage in general. No, I said, unless you get lucky, eh? She shakes her head and we both know the reality of the chasm that seperates our individual opportunities and lifestyles. She is, after all, a member of the BoP and second generation migrant worker at that. I am simply a second generation migrant worker.

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