Tapashi Mondal is a 43-year-old social activist who has spent the past 12 years working for the upliftment of the people in different villages of the Sundarbans. She started out as a volunteer when relief efforts were underway after the cyclone Aila tore through the villages. Mondal has now graduated to single handedly securing funds for social work, and greatly reducing child marriage and domestic abuse in many areas of Piyaligram village.

Before cyclone Aila hit, Mondal used to run a small stationary stall outside of her daughters' school in Bijoynagar, Sundarbans. She also occasionally taught dance there.

"The cyclone triggered a lot of problems in the area," she said, adding "books and study materials were washed away, entire homes were destroyed, and people were going through a lot of hardships. At this time child marriage in the area also escalated. One of the school teachers contacted an NGO Ebong Alaap in Kolkata, who stepped in to provide books and other relief materials, and then began to do gender based social work through the schools there. That is when I joined the efforts first and met Sarmishtha di, the founder of the NGO."

Sarmishtha Dutta Gupta is a social activist and founder of Ebong Alaap, which has done a lot of relief work, and raised gender awareness by conducting workshops at the schools.

Mondal's exposure to social work started with her introduction to Ebong Alaap. "I took on responsibility for the ground work there (Bali-II, Sundarbans) in 2012. We worked with four schools and many students took interest. The first few efforts were geared towards bringing the children books and trying to tackle the problem of child marriage. I was there till 2018, and then towards the end of 2019, I moved to Piyaligram, due to health reasons. My daughters both live here." Her elder daughter is 23 and works as a beautician at a salon in Kolkata and her younger daughter, 21, is currently preparing for her MSc examinations.

"We were forced to start work here in Piyaligram in earnest, because soon after I moved here the Covid lockdown began. It brought a new set of problems to the people of these localities (in Piyaligram)," recalled Mondal. "You know, this place is halfway between a village and a city, and most of the people here are daily wage labourers. During the lockdown people were not getting anything to eat. We reached out to multiple NGOs and others through the connections at Ebong Alaap, to start relief work here."

She recalls hearing an infant crying in her neighbourhood every night during this time. "A baby who should be feeding only on breast milk was forced to eat semi-solid foods like boiled bitter gourd."

Mondal has always taken on personal responsibility for the social issues plaguing the area or community she is living in at the time. She says she can never really explain why. "Why do I do this work? I really have no answer for that question," she said. "Only after the NGO made it's way into our village was I able to get specific training and attend workshops on how to handle these issues and educate the localites about them and discrimination they are living with. I know what changes this information and learning has brought about in my life. So how can I possibly sit back and do nothing to bring the same awareness to the people living around me?," she asked in return.

The lockdown period in Piyaligram was closely followed by cyclone Amphan, which devastated the villages. "We arranged tarps and medicines for the families that were hit and who lost their homes. And at this time, one of the biggest issues here was child marriage. People married young girls off to 'lessen the financial load' for the family, and dowry demands were less as families had incurred huge losses due to the cyclone," Mondal explained.

Mondal went door-to-door convincing families to change their decision on marrying off their daughters. She recalled the case of a girl who had stopped her own marriage four times before her family was moved to respect her decision. "The effect was largest on the girls. In any social situation, the fallout on the women is always worse," she observed.

"Whenever I came to know of an instance of domestic violence or attempted child marriage, I would immediately contact the NGO, and we'd put a plan in place to act on it. We have since held many workshops and training camps on gender, self-defence etc. with the women and mothers of the area. We have also conducted rallies, one in particular was done by a group of young girls against eve-teasing they faced on the streets. This is unheard of in these areas," she added.

Sipra Mukherjee, a professor in the English Department of West Bengal State university is also a member of Ebong Alaap and has worked closely with Mondal the past few years. She spoke of Mondal's efforts to improve education and schooling in this village. "When the covid lockdown was imposed in Piyaligram, Tapashi informed us that the kids have stopped going to schools and whether or not it would be possible to start tuitions for them. Then with some help from Ebong Alaap she went on to gather a group of students who would run these coaching classes. Whenever she thinks she needs help, she reaches out.

"When we provide training in these places, we empower the victims to speak out and revolt for themselves. For example now there are many girls who put a stop to their own weddings by reporting to the police, if they are underage and/or unwilling. This was not the case before," said Mukherjee.

Mondal, while working to eradicate child marriages from Piyaligram, has developed a network of informants and sources within the 'wedding circuit'. These include decorators, caterers, and officiators or priests, who contact her whenever they get word of a minor girl being married off. She says that she would never have been successful had she not consciously brought about changes in her own life as well.

She recalled that at the time when she was married, she was expected to cover her face with her saree at all times and touch the elders' feet every morning. "When I began working against such issues I had to bring about these changes personally as well. I had to overcome those barriers myself before I began teaching others… I try to bring about change where I am living. Change is happening and change travels from person to person. I have seen this in my own life. If that young girl had not yearned for a change, she would not have gone to the extent of reporting her own wedding four times! She came from a family where her older sister had also been a victim of child marriage."

Mukherjee too testifies to Mondal's dedication to social work. "I have seen tremendous development and tremendous growth [in Mondal]. Now they conduct workshops and write reports by themselves. They [Mondal and her team] have faced a lot of threats. Often, families used to travel to different villages to marry off their daughters, so that it would not get reported. It was then that Tapashi got in touch with the decorators and priests.When families used to try to marry their underage children secretly, these people would become informants for her.

"Tapashi moulded and shaped her natural spirit and channelised it through all of this work and her personal experiences. She had all the skills in her already, and she learned to use them as she did all this. Then of course, she went on to win many prizes," Mukherjee told The Citizen.

Mondal won the Kutchina Kruttika Fellowship in 2018 for her contribution in bringing about social change in society, and the Sudakshina Laha Smriti Award in 2019. "The group of women that she started out with in Bali-II has since gotten smaller, and only a few women were able to keep doing the work, as it is a highly involved job. But even after moving to Piyaligram Tapashi is still managing all of that," said Mukherjee.

Despite her many accolades, Mukherjee said that Mondal also faces a lot of pushback. "What we have seen here is that Tapashi is able to connect with the women on the ground, and gain the trust of the women," she observed. "She is becoming a person to whom the women are coming and confiding in. And this has earned her some hostility from the patriarchy there, but she will always laugh and stand her ground."

Mondal for her part considers Mukherjee, the founder of Ebong Alaap, and the women she has worked with at the NGO akin to mother figures in her life. With them Mondal found the affection she craved.

Mondal follows a six-month plan that she chalks out a time-table for, renewing it in accordance with the needs of the communities at any given time. These tasks range from scouting police stations, visiting schools to advertise the newly established library in Piyaligram, conducting film screenings for school students, among other things.

Mondal is of the opinion that their years of incessant intervention and awareness raising has borne fruit. "Nowadays we get cases of child marriages once or twice a week, at the time of the pandemic we were getting 2-3 a week. Child marriages and domestic violence were the bigger problems we noted in this community. But the biggest by far was the school dropout rates. I was shocked by the number of dropouts, and this led to child marriage as well."

Mondal herself grew up in a broken family, and had a very conflicted childhood. Her mother and father had to live separately because their love marriage was looked down upon, and that led to problems between the two of them. "My parents did not live together, and I found myself staying at my father's family home most often. But the elders there treated me terribly and used any excuse to beat me up. I felt my mother's absence. My aunts and uncles used to be stingy with food as well, and never treated me like they did their own children. They made me do chores along with the servants in the house, on the other hand, none of this was expected of my brother."

But despite all of this, she scrimped study materials and textbooks and continued with her schooling and even enrolled in dance classes. She recalled a time when she brought home a few books on loan in order to be able to study for her 10th standard board exams. Mondal faced backlash from her family, who tried to hold her back from completing her education, reasoning that girls do not need to complete higher studies.

"My father and my youngest uncle who was pursuing an MA degree and had just returned home, helped me to finish my education against a lot of protest from the rest of the family. With the help of one of the school teachers, and a performing arts teacher in our area, they got me out of that house and secured me a place at the school hostel. All of these people fought a lot for my education with the elders in the family."

Mondal recalled that she was one of only seven or eight other girls in the hostel, as not many women typically studied long enough to appear for the board exams. "I studied a lot for those two months and I never expected I would pass," she confessed. "But soon after the results came out my family arranged for me to get married against my will." She was 16 years old at the time and her husband 18 years older to her.

"My father's family was quite well off for those times, they owned a lot of farmland. And within the family we faced this kind of discrimination. They employed and fed so many people but there was no progress of the mind," she recalled.

It was only in her forties that Mondal was able to complete her Higher Secondary studies from Rabindra Mukta Vidyalaya (an open school in West Bengal) last year. She is now enrolled in her first year of graduate studies.

"I was always the rebellious kind," Mondal admitted with a laugh. "I have a stubbornness and anger that I can neither deny nor control. That has landed me in trouble in the past too. But when I get the instinct that something is wrong, I feel the need to do something about it, despite any roadblocks. Whether people are in agreement or not, if I get a reaction from people I know that I have started a conversation."

Mondal said that her rebellious personality has not always worked in her favour. "Because of my attitude, I was labelled a lot of things when I went to my in-laws house. They called me indecent, ill-mannered, disrespectful and mischievous. I took it in from one ear and let it out the other. I even told my mother-in-law that I would refuse to sleep in the same room as my husband if it meant I had to wake up every morning and touch his feet. I said this in front of the whole family. I always talked back and was disobedient, and this appalled everyone."

Mukherjee recalled that they first interacted with Mondal because of their work at her daughters' school. "Tapashi's daughters used to study in the school that we were associated with, and she used to sell basic stationery items outside the school. We met her through her daughters."

Mukherjee believes that the work that has so far been accomplished in the Sundarbans villages would not have been possible, had it not been for people like Tapashi being involved at the grassroots level. "We realised that the problem of underage marriages that was growing there could not be managed through intervention in the schools alone. We needed the local women. That was when Tapashi emerged as one of the more spirited and articulate voices.

"One of the reasons for underage marriages in these suburbs and villages, is the fear that the young girl is going to fall in love, or get pregnant, or run away. Because of the sexual urge, which is seen as a negative thing, underage marriage is seen as a safe way out." Mukherjee said it was Mondal and her team, who were able to penetrate into these rural communities and educate the people about their laws and rights at the ground level.

According to Mukherjee, Mondal has been able to provide the women with a sense of security and confidence. "The changes at the grassroots level would not have been possible without the involvement of the localities. We are just coming and going, we do not understand the politics on the ground. But it is because of men and women like Tapashi, who are making efforts on the ground, that we are seeing any change in these societies.