A New Name For Nakushi

NAT
Maharashtra has been struggling with a declining child sex ratio and is ranked among the five worst states in the country. The reasons are the same as elsewhere: preference for a male child. But in a shocking indicator of how extreme this desire is and how deep-rooted the bias against the girl child can get, scores of families across Maharashtra have simply named their daughters 'Nakushi' or 'Nakusha'—meaning 'unwanted' in Marathi.

Last week, the district administration of Satara, Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan's home district, identified 222 such girls under the age of 18 and either renamed them or gave them the option of picking a new name for themselves.

District officials and activists say the practice of villagers naming girls 'Nakushi' was discovered last year and blamed it on a mix of frustration and ignorance. Mothers of Nakushis said it was a popular belief in these parts that if their girl was named Nakushi, their next-born would be a boy.

Varsha Deshpande, a local social activist who works for women's issues, said parents of such girls were usually poor and could not afford the technology that the rich used to illegally determine the sex of the foetus. "There are two issues here. We have to realise that the parents did not abort the child through sex selection and detection. They expressed their frustration by naming her 'Nakushi'. There are a large number of people in this state who go in for sex selection procedures. That is a larger worry," she says.

District Information Officer U B Sawant, one of the main organisers of the renaming ceremony, said the event hoped to spread awareness about girls and make them feel wanted. "A new name will make a big difference to their lives. We are also taking steps to improve the sex ratio," he says.

Deshpande said after the renaming and the public attention, the district administration has to ensure that the girls get financial support for their education and health.

Nakushi Londhe, 4 is now Bhagyashree

In her concrete home in Khodshi village, barely 4 km from Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan's hometown of Karad in Satara district, Nakushi scampers around, playing with her younger sister Mona and unaware of the attention she is drawing. In a few days, she will get a new name—Bhagyashree.

Bhagyashree's mother Vrushali, 24, who has studied till class X, and father Anand, 28 (till class XI), always wanted to stop at two children, but finally gave in to Anand's parents and decided to go in for a third child. But before that, they had to name their second daughter Nakushi even though Vrushali had set her mind on the name 'Bhagyashree'.

Naming her 'Nakushi' would bring a boy into the family, her mother-in-law insisted. Vrushali recalls how she would not carry her daughter or hold her close during the initial days after her birth. "I already had a daughter and there was tremendous family pressure for a boy. In my initial fit of anger and frustration, I would not hold her for long. Our financial condition is not very good and we wanted only two children, irrespective of their gender," she says.

Vrushali's third child—after Bhagyashree—was a girl again and she named her Mona. Only four months ago, she gave birth to her fourth child, a boy who is yet to be named. "Now I am free and the situation has changed dramatically. There are no more fights and taunts over children," says Vrushali, adding that now her mother-in-law asks her to take good care of Mona as she was followed by a boy.

Through all the turmoil over the last six years, Vrushali says that the thought of aborting her babies never occurred to her. "The thought of taking a pill or aborting the child never crossed my mind. It's a living being after all and I would never think of killing my child because it's a girl," she says.

The health workers at Khodshi sub-centre who monitored her deliveries say they faced several uncomfortable situations while dealing with Vrushali's family, right from being thrown out of the house to being at the receiving end of snide remarks over their interference in family affairs.

"Her father-in-law has a sharp tongue and would not listen to our counseling. He was firm that he wanted a grandson," says A S Waske, an assistant nurse and midwife at the health centre. The day the grandson was born, a message was sent to Waske and her team saying she could now do the tubectomy operation anytime she wanted.

Anand, who works in Mumbai as a construction worker, says it was family pressure that stopped him from sticking to his resolve of having only two children. "I am away from home for most of the year. My wife had to live with my parents and I could not prevail over them," says Anand.

Vrushali now wants her daughters to be educated and financially independent. "My daughters and son will go to school, be well educated and earn for themselves. They should be able to do well for themselves in life," says Vrushali.

Nakushi Mane, 11 months is now Nikita

At 11 months, she is among the youngest 'Nakushis' in Satara district, but before she learns to step out of her cradle, she will get a new name, Nikita.

Her mother Surekha, 24, can't stop smiling at the thought of her daughter getting the name she wanted for her child. Her apparently conservative mother-in-law Savitri, however, continues to taunt Surekha for bearing a girl child.

"It's very simple, we didn't want this girl child so we called her Nakushi. Next time, my daughter-in-law will bear a son. It is our traditional belief and it will come true," says Savitri, resting on her bed in the three-room house at Charegaon in Karad taluka. The Mane family is well off with two cows, three goats and land on which they grow sugarcane.

Sitting on the steps of their house, Nikita's older sisters Swati, 4, and Komal, 2, call out to her, asking her to play with them. The toddler turns around at the sound of her name 'Nakushi' and crawls towards her sisters. "She has been called Nakushi since birth and so she responds to that name. When I say Nikita, she doesn't look at me," Surekha says indulgently.

As soon as Surekha steps out of the house to keep an eye on Nikita and is out of her mother-in-law's earshot, she says, "My mother-in-law kept nagging me about a male child and when Nikita was born, she decided on the name Nakushi. We couldn't say anything since she is very conservative," she says.

As she prepared for the renaming ceremony, Surekha said she was glad the government's effort would help her daughter get a new name. "Everyone in the family expects me to have a boy. We are going to try one more time and then take a decision on the family planning operation. We will take another chance," she says as she hugs Nikita.

Dr Pradip Patil, who handles the Umbraj Public Health Centre which covers 23 villages, says that though the region has stable educational and economic parameters, the demand and desire for a male heir persist. The region has recorded a low sex ratio at birth, ranging from 815 in 2008-09 to 857 in 2010-11.

Surekha, who studied till class VIII, says her education didn't help her much. Often called "lazy" by her mother-in-law, she says she feels the social pressure to bear a son. "I argued with my mother-in-law initially but it was of no use," she says.

Nakusha Rathod, 13 is now Aishwarya

In their rented home in the main chowk of Chorgewadi village near Malharpeth in Patan taluka, Nakusha is all smiles at the thought of her new name 'Aishwarya', a name that she shares with her favourite film actor.

"Now everyone calls me Aishwarya or Aishu. It feels good and I feel loved," she says smiling. Naming her Nakusha did not ensure that her parents had a son after her. She is the third of four sisters.

"It was just a popular belief and old women in the family and in the neighbourhood said if I call her Nakushi, I will have a boy. That has not happened," says her mother, Mainabai.

The family has been living in Chorgewadi, a village with a population of 4,115 people, for the last eight years. Her parents shifted from the Karanataka border area to this village in search of a better livelihood. "We could barely make ends meet there as employment opportunities were not many. We shifted here because we want our girls to be educated and have a better life. It is not that we didn't want her, but we wanted a boy," says her father Rajaram.

Rajaram is a daily wage labourer and works at farms or at construction sites along with his wife. Now even he calls his daughter Aishu. "Why will I call her anything else? Just look at her, she is so pretty," he says.

Aishwarya recounts how her name change happened. She says health officers came to her school and asked her if she liked her name. When she said no, they gave her a list of names to choose from. They said she could even suggest one herself. She picked Aishwarya and it has been her name since.

Aishwarya's days in school appear numbered now as her parents say they don't have much money. "We will not be able to afford her school education much longer," they say.

Their neighbour Sulabha Khatarkar says Aishwarya often comes and studies at their home when her parents are away.

"She is bright and good at studies. She is well behaved and helps at home. It will take us some time to get over calling her Nakusha. It is such an accepted name in these parts, we never felt there was anything absurd about it," she says.

Nakushi Bhise, 17 is now Poonam

She lives in the only home with a television set in Naralwadi village in Patan taluka and loves watching Hindi and Marathi saas-bahu serials. A class V dropout, she says the name has left a scar on her mind. "I hate being called Nakushi. Even today, my mother and brother call me Naku," she says. She has taken her friends' suggestion and decided to rename herself Poonam.

One of the poorest parts of Satara district, Patan has 92 girls with the name Nakushi. The village with 910 residents is small and close-knit. Ironically, Poonam does not belong to an all-girls family yearning for a male child. She has an elder brother and two sisters before her. Her mother, Suman, yearned for another male child and so, when Poonam was born, she named her Nakushi. After Poonam, when she gave birth to a son, Suman's belief in the myth only strengthened.

"When she was due, I wished for a son and she was born. Therefore we didn't name her anything but simply started calling her Nakushi," says Suman.

Poonam, who dropped out of school after her father's death, says she never liked going to school because the children would make fun of her name. "I was always called Naku in school and other children would ask me if my parents didn't want me. I would feel terrible and would come back crying," she says.

On such days, she would ask her mother why she brought her into the world if she didn't want her. "I often asked her why she named me so, why she gave birth to me if she didn't want me. She never answered," she says.

Poonam spends her days cooking for the family, then going with her mother to the fields. "But most evenings are spent watching my favourite television serials with other girls from the village," she says.

Her mother is now thinking of getting her married and is happy that she is getting a new name. "I will not tell anyone her name was Nakushi. It might be a bad omen. Looking back, I regret the name I gave her," says Suman.

Nakushi More, 16 is now Sanchita

Quiet and demure, 16-year-old Nakushi More, opens up at the thought of her name being changed in a few days. It will bring her relief from the constant teasing at school, she hopes.

Three years ago, her family shifted from Jambhulwadi to Chorgewadi in

Satara taluka. The move was not a happy one. "In this school, all my classmates knew the meaning of my name and would often tease me. I have wanted my name changed since then," she says.

Tears welling up in her eyes, she recalls how friends in her primary school never teased her over her name. "It made no difference in that school. No one knew the meaning of my name," she says.

At their one-storeyed brick and thatch home in Chorgewadi, Sanchita prepares for her mid-term geometry examination. "I want to continue my education, I like to study. I like all subjects," she says as she goes about doing her chores. She helps her mother in cooking in the mornings and evenings.

Most of her day is spent at school. "I will go to Satara to study further.

I want to make a name for myself,"

says Sanchita.

She recalls how two months ago a few people came to her class while an examination was on and asked her if she liked her name. She promptly replied that she didn't and that at home she was called "chakuli" or doll.

"My friend Rajeshri suggested the name Sanchita so I'm going to name myself that. Now, I have been told to write my new name in the board exam application form so no one will tease me," she says.

Her father Laxman More, who owns a two-acre plot, watches Sanchita as she goes about her daily chores at home. Laxman, who had a son after Sanchita, finds nothing odd or wrong about girls being called Nakushi.

"She is very studious. She never complained about any teasing to us though she did say she didn't like the name. I had a boy after her, so it worked for us," he says, pointing proudly to his son Aditya who goes cycling in the village with his friends.

Nakushi Chandrakant Pawar, 11 is now Aishwarya/Komal

A student of class V, she is currently mulling over a name for herself. Her classmates have decided on Komal but she likes Aishwarya better.

"I like Aishwarya. I have been told it means 'good'. Isn't there an actress by that name? But my friends in school have started calling me Komal. I cannot decide between the two," she says.

The youngest of five sisters, she lives in a one-room thatched hut that has no electricity. Her parents belong to the 55 BPL families in Kamthi village, a few kilometres away from Satara city. The village, with a population of 1,520, has three 'Nakushis' of different ages.

Aishwarya is a popular student and after school, girls from her class crowd around her. They are busy making Diwali vacation plans, but the teacher has given them loads of home work. With her soft lyrical voice, Aishwarya is often called to sing the morning prayers in school. She shakes her head when asked if she disliked being called Nakushi. "We started calling her Komal after her birthday on September 27. Now no one in the school calls her Nakushi," says Gayatri, her classmate and friend.

Aishwarya's teacher Vijaymala Landge says she takes a keen interest in her studies. "She often comes up with questions in class and is ready with answers and her homework. I have never heard a complaint against her. She is also very fond of singing and is a member of our morning prayer team."

At Aishwarya's home, her mother Mangal Pawar sits in the darkness, talking about her desire for a son. "Is there any parent who will say their child is unwanted? But elders in the family and society say that if we name the girl Nakushi, the next child will be a boy. That is why she is called Nakushi, but that didn't mean she was unwanted."

She says the family did not hold a naming ceremony for any of their daughters, except for the eldest. Mangal says the government's naming ceremony this month has given her a chance to correct her mistake.

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