Confessions of a Reluctant Feminist

My town is one of those that counts among one of the most developed ones in India today. With a literacy rate touching more than 95 percent, negligible slums, one of the highest per capita incomes in the country, broad tree lines boulevards, it is comparable to cities in the most developed nations. With an enviable number of educational institutes and a full fledged university with multiple colleges affiliated to it and a very low crime rate, it would seem like the city isn’t far from becoming an example for the rest of the country to follow. Perhaps, if development was measured only by including the male gender, it would qualify easily, but something that seems to be a very glaring discrepancy is the complete lack of ambition among the fairer sex. This is not to say that there are absolutely no career oriented women in my town. This simply means that for such a high level of development indicators and with almost cent per cent women completing their graduation either in town or in other cities or even abroad, the number of women who go on to have successful careers or even start out to have one is abysmally low.

If you were to ask a woman in my town on whether she felt any sort of discrimination or lack of access, you would meet with a resounding no. And this, according to me is the most dangerous sort of discrimination where those experiencing it have made it such a normal and expected part of their existence that they fail to even see or realize it. This is because in theory, they do have access to everything. As most of them come from the upper middle class there is no lack of money for shopping for luxurious brands or making foreign trips. There is also no lack of freedom as most of them come from families that would not think twice about sending them for a vacation abroad with their friends in their early twenties. But then hits the marriageable age when they are ideally supposed to settle down. Even girls who have been working abroad for a few years after having completed their studies simply abandon their careers and come back home to settle down to domestic bliss, where they become the supposedly beloved daughter in law of a new family that is almost like a clone of her original family with the lives of their daughters mirroring their own. There are plenty of distractions at this time with a lot of planning involved in having a wedding that outshines that of others that took place before them and a tizzy of social events begins that rivals the grand 3D parties in “The Great Gatsby”.

 

If you were to visit my town, you would feel that my fears of this sort of discrimination have no basis as you would never see any parents telling their daughters off for having a career or any prospective in-laws forbidding them from working. However, if you were to stay and have a deeper look, you would see that very subtle forces are at work to wean a girl away from having any sort of independent existence and encourage her to become a cog in the family machine. Firstly, there is an absolute lack of role models in the immediate community that can be looked upto as career women or women in their own right. Even if there are headstrong women or seemingly independent women, they are simply so in the domain of their home and outside of the home, it is the man who is seen as the superior entity running the household. Women who have grown up on family money take very easily to now living off their husbands as they have never experienced any sort of monetary independence in their lives and so do not seem to know how liberating it is to be master of your own destiny instead of living for somebody else. I suspect it is not entirely the parents’ fault here as they simply wish to give their daughters comfortable lives free from hard work. But, what builds character and stands one in good stead is to have a challenge and a struggle and to earn your own livelihood and if this is true for men, it is very much true for women as well who are in no way the weaker sex in today’s world. There is almost a sort of ancient caste system prevailing where the daughters of doctors become doctors and the daughters in business families become housewives just like their mothers and other women in their extended families. It seems like there is no freedom to choose what they want to be, not in the conventional way of being forbidden but of never having been exposed to these ideas.

 

Apart from parents unconsciously or subconsciously perpetrating these ideas, the messages emanating from popular culture also seem to be that the sole aim of a girl’s life is to find her Mr. Right and everything else will automatically fall in place. There are invisible rules that it is mostly okay to have a boyfriend or two but once some line is crossed and one has had a boyfriend too many or has slept around or partied out a little more than accepted, there is the danger of becoming an outcaste and never being able to marry in town. The only way out for such girls becomes getting married to someone outside the city who does not have much idea about the heady days of the unfortunate girl’s teenage. There are boys who seem to be perfectly fine with girls in short dresses when they are pursuing mindless degrees abroad or getting some “exposure” but once back home become raging patriarchs who forbid their beloved girlfriends from wearing too short a dress or drinking a little more than the permissible amount or even talking too much to a particular guy that she seems to be enjoying a conversation with a little too much at a party. The girls too willingly comply simply because they don’t know any better. This potent mixture of ideas coming in at the time of growing up becomes firmly entrenched in the mind and becomes very difficult to purge even if one travels far and wide in adult life and is exposed to other cultures.

 

While the men run their family business, the women dream up new ensembles for their next outing and the hair or makeup that they would have to outshine others at the next social event. It becomes quite a full time job to not be seen repeating an outfit and some dexterous mathematics is required to figure out the number of people who would be common in two possible social events so that the same clothes are not repeated. The running to and from boutiques, malls, exhibitions, browsing the internet for a la mode styles, figuring out how to do the latest hairdo from the Game of Thrones, finding matching purses and footwear, getting appointments for facials, it is no less than a full time job, except that it doesn’t pay and simply feeds your false sense of importance and vanity. My town, mind you, is no Saudi Arabia. Women on paper are equal to men according to the codified laws of the land. They go to the same schools and the same expensive colleges abroad, get the same amount of pocket money from their parents and the same amount of freedom to blow up the money, the same night time curfews as the men and the same cars to drive as them. Why then do they become domesticated dolls and men become the breadwinners? At this point in the article, it seems to me time to issue a clarification that I’m no mean feminist of the sort who thinks that a women who doesn’t have a career is a waste of space. On the contrary, I belong to the creed that thinks that everyone should have the freedom of choice. Girls should work if they want or stay at home and mind the children if that’s what gives them joy. Taking care of a house and making it a home is also a full time job and is in no way less important than having a career outside the house. However, what dismays me about the current state of affairs in my town is that if there was actually a freedom of choice and no entrenched attitudes of what a girl should or shouldn’t do, there would be mostly an equal number of women being career women and an equal number who stayed home. A girl growing up would be able to see all sorts of role models around her in her immediate or extended family, a domestic goddess, a restaurant chef, a business owner, a doctor, a bureaucrat, a stylist, a teacher, an artist, a writer, an actress and the list goes on and on. What she sees mostly instead is stylish women clones of each other attending coffee clubs and parties, commenting about who is wearing what, match making the young crowd around them or having an odd glass of wine when feeling particularly rebellious. What you would expect to see with each successive generation is the narrowing of the gap between the way boys and girls live their lives. What you see instead is a repetition of what’s gone in the past perpetuating itself to eternity.

 

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Love conquers all!

I think it was love at first sight, but I just didn’t know it then. The first time I saw you was when you were sitting with a common friend, and I caught you off guard by suddenly appearing when you guys had just been talking about me, some friendly banter, trying to rate my looks, like people do in an Indian academic institute where the girl boy ratio is balanced at a precarious 25:75. You looked sheepish and that impish smile just drew me in. I didn’t give much thought to you until I ran into you again, when by some stroke of fate, you ended up walking just behind me during that day long trek on the hills. There was not one moment of silence between us and each of us excitedly tried to talk over the other, as if trying to confirm whether we had really found each other, by gauging each other’s reactions to what we said and how much we resonated with each other. It didn’t matter what we talked about. All I knew was that your voice was music to my ears. I have had my fair share of attention from the opposite sex, and as a result, have devised a number of maneuvers to ward it off. However, when you decided to pursue me, I could sense something very different about it and all my usual defenses simply fell away, perhaps because I saw in your eyes a great sort of love, the kind of love that looks for a mirror and when it finds one, has to inevitably reflect off it and create infinity like two mirrors reflecting each other.

 

The twist in the tale was that you were Tamil and I was a Punjabi. And thus began my grand education about the Southern part of the country which up until now, I had taken to be one lump where dark-complexioned people adept at pelvic thrusts and funny dance moves lived and that I had minimum interest in ever encountering. The South for me was simply a channel on TV that I turned to when bored by the same old shows to laugh at the movies that seemed strange and silly to me. Up until now, I had a definitive notion of what is beautiful and for a person fed on Hollywood and Bollywood movies where fair is beautiful, and a state where girls rub cream on their faces and avoid the sun like the plague so that they can get the perfect peaches and crème complexion, the first thing that a person had to be to be attractive for me was to have a complexion on the lighter side, which in more offensive terms means that he had to be fair, the whiter the better. Brown hair and light eyes would probably represent the Adonis in my head. But destiny had other plans for me. I found you, who had beetle black eyes, jet black hair, and skin the shade that qualifies to be called “kaalu” in Punjabi which is something that you say to someone when you wish to offend them. All my notions of what I would want my dream man to look like came crashing down. What didn’t change however is how I had imagined I would feel once I actually met someone who I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. The feeling I would get when I looked into their eyes, the way my hand would always seek theirs, the way I would just want to snuggle up on their chest, and the delicious feeling I would get simply when he was around, saying nothing, doing nothing, everything that you think exists in some fairy land (even while typing I realize the embedded notions of what constitutes beauty embedded in the English language, for example fairy comes from the word fair folk) far far away and that you wouldn’t expect to find in reality. All of this and more is what I found, and boy, was it a surprise package!

 

I love aesthetics, be they in paintings or in books or even in interiors. Even the way you put food on a plate and the way you go about eating, I would want to be aesthetically pleasing, and anyone who slurped or dirtied their hands while eating would be a huge turn off for me. A gentleman in Victorian England who ate daintily when in company and never made a sound when the cutlery touched the plates was the epitome of what constitutes perfection for me. But surprise of surprises, here you were, who didn’t even believe in cutlery! You plopped a variety of things on your plate in a very random mixture and didn’t care if the different dishes were separated and then you dug in, with your bare fingers without sparing any thoughts for a possible spoon or a fork. I dreaded the day I would go out with you for a dinner or a lunch date, anywhere in the northern part of the country and had prepared an elaborate plan on ensuring you used cutlery so people wouldn’t stare at us. But, when we did go out and you did eat the rice with your fingers, I found myself not giving a damn! For it was a pleasure just watching you eat and enjoying everything I ordered for you, and sharing the taste of exquisitely prepared dishes and feeling like the heavens had blessed me for giving me the pleasure of your company even though it came with curry laden hands that didn’t seem to want to hold a spoon! Even though over the years, I have embraced the way you eat, I insist on ensuring that you wash your hands with soap and repeatedly gift you handwash which you take in good spirit and even actually use most of the time.

 

Next came the culture shock! You loved music, especially Tamil music, and in the beginning, I just couldn’t bear to listen to the cacophony of sounds that meant nothing to me. But, your dogged insistence on sharing something that you love and adore finally paid off, and one day, I finally opened up my ears to the beauty of the music of your land. Your excitement rubbed off on me and I found myself listening to the music from your ears, and actually enjoying it so much so, that whenever I want the feeling of solace or of feeling like home, I find myself tuning in even without your persistence. I don’t know what it is about it that appeals to me, and it is definitely not the fact that Tamil music is the best in the world, as you insist! I think it is the fact that it connects me to you and offers me a window into your world that makes me turn to it in times when being apart from you seems to become especially unbearable. The connection through music was a two-way street, to my pleasant surprise, and my heart sometimes still does a flip when I find you suddenly crooning “Ambersariya” a Punjabi folk song. My penchant for Tamil music however is not taken very well by my fellow northerners, who are used to listening to the peppy Punjabi beats or songs from foreign shores and I’m close to finding myself disinvited from a lot of places for my new addiction.

 

One thing that completely separates the state you come from from the rest of the country is the fact that you take immense pride in your language and wouldn’t give it up for anything in the world. On the other hand, where I come from, there s a running joke that “If you want to teach a Punjabi English, give him a few drinks” for after a few drinks, every Punjabi thinks he is adept at the language and wants to come across as suave by conversing in it. More than me talking romantically or professing my love to you in high sounding poetic terms, the easy way out, to my great amusement, to make you feel almost euphoric was to simply speak a word of Tamil to you, even if it was something as banal as “Enna aachu” (What happened) or Vanakkam (a greeting). Anyone with a different pronunciation of what constituted English for me was met with inner laughter and sense of derision followed by multiple corrections. But you, you made me fall in love with even your “whiiiiiiiiiis” instead of “why” and your “weaaaaaaaar” instead of “where”, so much so that I want to destroy my own smug, self-satisfied way of speaking English and adopt your musical way of talking.

 

Although I didn’t find what was conventional beauty in my head with you, I find beauty in you that is a thousandfold more beautiful then anything that was in my head. Your thick, curly eyelashes that frame your beautiful eyes, the butter softness in your hands, the smile that reaches right up to your ears and makes your eyes glitter, the pale whiteness at the bottom of your feet, your perfectly shaped nose, your slender neck, and most of all, simply the way you are, and a lot of other things that I still discover every day and that I am yet to discover in the still to come journey of life that I hope to share with you!