Chapter 6: Struggle and Hope

There are moments in life that stick in memory as a fulcrum between before and after.

Arti Kumari’s came on a morning a few months after her wedding, when she took her place on the starting line for her physical exam to qualify for a government security job — running a mile in seven minutes or less. It was the culmination of months of early-morning training sessions and years of study.

Her mother, Meena, waited anxiously outside the recruitment center. Rohit, Arti’s new husband, was with her, his presence a tangible sign of his support.

But even as Arti awaited the starting gun, the crowd of candidates beside her made painfully clear how much competition she faced. So many candidates had traveled to the exam site, on a remote campus in Uttar Pradesh State, that there was nowhere to house them all. Arti, Rohit and Meena had slept in a local gurudwara, a Sikh place of worship, packed in with the other hopefuls and their chaperones.

The starting signal sounded, and she began racing down the track. Lungs aching, she pushed her body to the breaking point under the morning’s burning heat.

“I kept thinking of my family, my mother who had come all the way with me, my in-laws who were expecting me to do well. I thought it doesn’t matter if I fall sick after this,” she said.

Summoning every drop of strength she had, she managed to reach the finish line under the seven-minute time limit. Then she promptly collapsed from exhaustion.

The job lists were not posted that day, and Arti returned to her home in Bihar State without knowing if she had won the government “job for life” that she longed for.

A few weeks later, her hopes were dashed.

A notice from the Central Industrial Security Force, the paramilitary corps she had worked so hard to join, politely informed her that despite passing both the written and physical tests, her overall score was not high enough to win employment. So many people had passed both exams that only the very top of the qualifying group had gotten jobs — and, she was told, she had missed that cutoff by just two points.

***

The problem for Arti, as for her country, is that India has not yet found a way to employ its surfeit of extraordinary young women.

Government jobs, with their excellent benefits and lifelong security, remain the ambition of millions. According to government statistics, 18,671,121 people applied for jobs with India’s central government in the 2021-22 recruitment period. But of those, only 38,850 were actually recommended for jobs — a success rate of barely 0.2 percent. (For comparison, the admission rate for Harvard that year was 4 percent — 20 times as high.)

On the face of things, the exam results seem to show progress for Indian women. In the most recent civil service exam results, for instance, the top four scores were all by women, who also made up 14 of the top 25 scorers. Stories in the national media covered the young “exam toppers” in tones usually reserved for Olympic medalists.

But women still face profound disadvantages in civil service careers, said Trijita Gonsalves, a political scientist at Lady Brabourne College in Kolkata, and author of a book about women in the Indian civil service.

Discrimination and harassment hinder women’s career progress, Ms. Gonsalves said. But, often, the disadvantage starts earlier, with many young women being given less time to study for exams than their husbands and brothers. “It’s the men whose careers are given priority,” she said. “Always.”

***

In the months following her rejection from the security force job, Arti struggled to balance the obligations of marriage with the demands of studying for a new round of government exams. She was determined to take the security force test once more before she aged out of eligibility, and to study for others as well.

But despite Rohit’s support, that proved complicated.

“It was getting difficult for me to live with my in-laws,” she said. “My mother-in-law would not let me study.”

“After doing all the household chores every day, she would want me to massage her feet or her head. After all this, if I picked up my books, she would say, ‘Why are you wasting your time? Come here and talk to me.’ She just didn’t understand how important this was to me,” Arti said.

Meanwhile, Rohit’s younger brother, who was also studying for the government exams, was able to go to the library to study, free from other responsibilities.

As tensions rose, Rohit made good on a promise he had made before they were married: They moved out of his family’s home and into a rented room in a nearby city so she could work undisturbed.

Moving out of the family home was a shocking departure from community expectations. And the elaborate furnishings that Arti’s parents had scraped and saved to provide as wedding gifts stayed with Rohit’s parents, so the young couple now had only a mattress on the floor.

But Arti could study there in peace. Her mother and sister visited regularly, reaffirming a family bond whose loss all three women had grieved so wrenchingly on Arti’s wedding day. And Rohit helped with the cooking and housework, reaffirming his commitment to support Arti’s dreams.

Soon, however, Arti once again found herself racing against the clock, grabbing every chance she could to get a job before her life changed forever.

She was pregnant.

***

The struggle to find a balance between work and family is especially fraught in India, where women face particularly heavy caregiving expectations from their husbands and in-laws, and where paid caregiving services remain relatively undeveloped.

“There is no care infrastructure in India,” said Poonam Muttreja, the executive director of the Population Foundation of India, a New Delhi-based research organization. As a result, day-care centers are too scarce to be a practical solution for working women.

It is up to women not just to care for the children, but for their husbands and in-laws as well, Ms. Muttreja said. And even for women who do manage to start careers, those demands often keep them from advancing.

“We really have to change,” Ms. Muttreja said of India. “When you are leaving 60 percent of the people behind, you cannot have the ambition to be an economic power.”

For India’s determined daughters, change often lies in a lifetime of skillful negotiations with their families and small steps away from patriarchal tradition. In the mother who works to fund an education, the father who agrees to delay a marriage. The family who moves to a new city, the rare husband who sacrifices to support his wife’s ambitions. The mother-in-law who extends her years of grueling housework and child care so that her daughter-in-law can work outside the home.

Whatever the changes ahead for India as a country, its future will be shaped by its daughters, by Artis and Nasreens, who believe in a promise of bigger lives and will work tirelessly to make them a reality.

***

The summer heat grew along with Arti’s belly. Sleep became ever more elusive as their small, bare room became unbearably stifling.

Eventually, she and Rohit had to move back to his parents’ house, which was bigger and cooler. Rohit’s mother and nearby cousins shared the housework, bringing respite from work as well as heat. The new household equilibrium, which everyone promised would continue after the baby arrived, allowed Arti time to study.

Here was the other side of the intergenerational bargain that so often limits the options for young women: Sometimes it was also the only social safety net they could rely on.

As Arti snatched whatever studying time she could, hoping the exams for the civil service and Bihar State police wouldn’t conflict with her due date, she tried not to think about the looming problem of child care.

“I think my mother and my mother-in-law will help with the baby,” she said. “Rohit’s younger cousins are eager to help as well. Rohit has said not to worry. If I have to work or go for a job, he says he will help or his mother will pitch in.”

In August, Arti had her baby, a girl named Nitya. And so the cycle of struggling and hoping, of disappointment and reaching for more, begins for another of India’s daughters.