"Your Babita Dixit has bought a new house," my mother informed me last week.
Babita was elected the municipal corporator of Faizullahganj ward in Lucknow in July 2012 on a Congress ticket after it was declared an all-women's seat. All posters in the neighbourhood unfailingly had pictures of women with a pallu and folded hands. The married ones wore a thick strand of vermillion in the parting of their hair, two dozen red glass bangles, with a bigger picture and name of their husband on the side. The widowed ones were clad in a white sari, slightly unkempt hair, four gold bangles on each wrist, and a picture and name of their sons on the side. For Babita, apart from other things, what stood out were a dark, almost black lipstick, and a long sparkling bindi on her forehead. She was flanked by two men, her husband Gyanendra Dixit, and her uncle-in-law CL Dixit.
CL Dixit is the developer of Keshav Nagar, the private colony where my mother lives. He was recently elected as the president of the Bar Council of Lucknow. Back in 1998, he had contested as an independent candidate for councillor with conch as his election symbol, and got a total of 200 votes. His claim to fame as a lawyer is how he managed the acquittal of his brother in 32 murder cases. Babita's husband, Gyanendra , known as Gyaani bhaiyya by the locals, is his nephew, his full-time accomplice, who wastes no time in flashing his pistol or touching the feet of all Brahmin aunties. He is the quintessential neighbourhood brother every girl is wary of. He once told my mother that I deliberately honk at boys while driving a scooter. The last I had heard of him was in 2010 when he got drunk and gave Babita a roadside beating for telling a neighbour that her husband does not listen to her. It left Babita's right eye bleeding.
Babita is a graduate from Mahila College, the oldest and the largest women's college in Uttar Pradesh. She has grown up in Aminabad, a 250-year-old market since the time of the Nawabs of Awadh. "I don't come from a 'hi-fi' family," she once told me. "But once a pandit told me that I am destined to rule." Keshav Nagar is a relatively new settlement, twenty-years-old.
Three months after she was elected as the councillor, I insisted to my mother on meeting her. The idea of a woman corporator in an area where I grew up was overwhelming.
At the main gate of her small, claustrophobic house, a clothes line burdened with undergarments greeted my mother and I. Inside red velvet sofas embellished the drawing room.
"How did it all happen?" I asked her."Even I don't quite know. I never question chachaji," she said. His wife is still the pradhan of our ancestral village, so I was chosen to contest here"."Campaigning must have been fun..." She laughed. "Ab tak toh bahuriya banakar rakkha tha, achanak se bola campaign karo." (Since the wedding I have been expected to behave as a docile daughter-in-law and suddenly one day I was asked to start campaigning.)"
Sweaty and dressed in a net nightie, with a similar dark lipstick as in the poster, she covered her head with a dupatta like a pallu, and spoke, as she fed her one-month-old. "I was only allowed to wear salwar kameez because I was pregnant with Rishi (points at the child)."
Babita has two more children, Krishna, her seven-year-old son, and Gauri, her five-year-old daughter. She interrupted our conversations and told Gauri: "Switch off the gas and tell Krishna dada to sleep. He has to go to school tomorrow. Then, come and dust this table."Doesn't Gauri have to go to school tomorrow?" I asked. My mother elbowed me to stay quiet. "Another problem was that since I was a mohalle ki bahu, I was expected to touch everyone's feet while campaigning. Since I was pregnant, it was very difficult to do so. That offended a lot of people.
"Did your win make bhaiyya happy?" "The day I won, his entire neck was garlanded, like a dulha. In our Brahmin community, husbands do not praise their wives publicly, but I have heard that I am lucky for him," she smiled. "Did no one garland you?" She let it pass with a smile."In the last three months I have been only required for signatures. Till now my identity was through bhaiyya and chachaji. Now it will be because of who I am."
In the Lucknow Municipal Corporation house, she is one of the 35 women corporators out of a total of 110 wards. "My first meeting was a good experience. The good thing is that male members and subordinates are not allowed inside any longer."
Keshav Nagar still does not have a sewer line or roads for that matter like many private colonies in urban India. "I did not buy a 'four-wheeler' post my victory to avoid accusations of misusing ward funds," she said. "I have used money from our own pocket to repair streetlights and the drainage system. I just want honesty. You are a reporter and move about in the world. Give me some tips..."
This was two years ago. Keshav Nagar's roads, drainage, sewer line, post office and streetlights are still in ruins. In fact, a big gutter lies open in front of Babita's old house. She has since moved to a new multistoried house and has purchased two cars. She is apparently not on talking terms with the chachaji any longer.
She was last in news as a corporator for carrying out a protest rally against the state Public Works Department because it was not accommodating Keshav Nagar. When I met her this week, she was in a rush. Gyaani bhaiyya was taking the kids to school in another car. "Tell the teacher that Gauri's school diary is missing," she told him.
Kurti, leggings, a vanished pallu, a small bindi, and a driver at her beck and call, she waved at me. "How are you? Sorry, have to go for a meeting… Planning to open an NGO soon… Will not contest the next elections… Call and come, we will talk…" she said in a hurry.
My mother shrugged: "Was this the point of reserving a seat for a woman councillor?"